Page last updated at 15:51 GMT, Friday, 20 June 2008 16:51 UK

Harnessing the power of 'clouds'

Spencer Kelly
By Spencer Kelly
Click presenter

It is not unusual to find the computer you bought only a couple of years ago cannot handle the very latest software, but there could be an answer to the problem so long as you are connected to the internet.

Clouds (Photo: PhotoDisk/Eyewire)
Cloud computing can change the way we access our digital content
The cloud is the latest buzzword doing the rounds in the tech world.

In essence it is a simple idea. It refers to data and processing power living online rather than in a beige box under a desk.

As we move towards a world where we are all storing more and more media in digital form - documents, photos, music or videos - moving it into the cloud offers unparalleled flexibility.

It is actually not a new idea, just a new name. But many companies are getting very excited about the prospect of offering storage and processing power that can be accessed anywhere, any time.

For example, the image of a cloud has been adopted by Apple as the logo for its recently launched MobileMe service on the 3G iPhone. Users of MobileMe can synchronise all their e-mail, contacts and photos from anywhere the device can pick an internet connection.

Online collaborations

Many applications which used to sit just on a desktop computer are also working their way into the cloud. For example, Google Docs, allows the creation of text documents and spreadsheets online.

The interface is clean and intuitive and, as files are stored in the cloud, they are accessible them from any internet enabled computer.

Colleagues and friends can be invited to collaborate by sending them a link. Any changes they make appear on screen as if by magic.

The best of both worlds will come when those desktop applications work really well with cloud services
Stephen Partridge, Adobe
Adobe's is a recently launched rival to Google Docs.

Those that prefer their online word processor to look and feel like the one on their desktop should give it a look.

It attempts to seduce users into thinking they are using a more traditional desktop application rather than a web page. The power of the cloud can even be harnessed for more complex processing like converting text documents to the popular PDF format.

"It won't feel as if I've left my desktop. It won't feel as if I've left the application, " says Stephen Partridge, Adobe's business development manager in the UK.

"I think PCs are going to get more powerful and cheaper, and people are going to still buy them. So the best of both worlds will come when those desktop applications work really well with cloud services," he adds.

The cloud can also provide an interface in which to access other digital assets. Flash-based provides a service which looks and mimics the familiar desktop environment.

Documents saved to the "desktop" are actually uploaded to the cloud, so next time a user logs in anywhere in the world, everything is there on the desktop just as it was left.

Security concerns

But are there and dangers with saving all that digital data in the cloud? Entrusting precious data to storage providers in the sky leaves us at their mercy.

Some of these [cloud] services were vulnerable to an attack on their security systems
Jonathan Bennett, editor Heise Online
Who is safeguarding your data?

In a recent investigation, technology website Heise Online found worrying security holes in some online backup services.

"During the course of our tests we found that some of these services were vulnerable to an attack on their security systems, which meant that someone could read or even alter all the data you're using these services to back up," says Jonathan Bennett, editor of Heise Online.

"What we did is what security experts call a 'man in the middle' attack. This involves impersonating the server you're trying to talk to by presenting it with a fake ID.

"Some of these services having this kind of problem, gives you cause for worry when you're using these internet and cloud-like services," he adds.

Powerful processing

But there is more to the cloud than just somewhere to store stuff.

It is a massive repository of processing power, and it comes into its own when uses to do labour intensive processing not possible on a low power device like a mobile phone.

Photographing a train ticket using a mobile phone
Evernote coverts photos of your documents into searchable text
In a new handset, loaded with the new Windows Mobile 6.1, power hungry voice processing goes on in the cloud.

In the past, voice recognition relied on a mobile's small and relatively slow processor. This often resulted in some frustrating exchanges with a handset.

This new service, still in beta testing, promises to offer a new way of saving information.

Simply take a snapshot of a handwritten note, business card or travel ticket and e-mail the image to Evernote's servers in the cloud. They scrawl is converted into text, producing a searchable database of thoughts which are accessible on a handset or a desktop computer.

Creating an animated movie requires lots and lots of number crunching.

Every frame needs to be rendered by powerful hardware normally beyond the budget of everyone except the biggest film studios.

But a new short film has been created by a team of animators using a rendering cloud set up by networking giant Sun. Now anybody can rent crunching time in the cloud at the cost of $1 (0.50) per processor per hour.

You will have to be very careful about knowing which bits of your personal information are actually needed with you, even if the cloud is there all the time
Guy Kewney, technology journalist
Of course all that data storage and processing has to take up some real estate somewhere and Iceland is positioning itself as the cloud's ideal home.

A proposed data centre there aims to blend into the scenery while taking advantage of the nearby geothermal and hydroelectric power stations for cheap electricity. The country's remoteness also adds to the security of the data.

So whatever you need to compute on your desktop, laptop or mobile phone, the cloud is hovering overhead to lend a helping hand.

Data loss

But beware, the more reliant on the cloud we become, the less we can get at if the connection to the internet disappears.

"You will have to be very careful about knowing which bits of your personal information are actually needed with you, even if the cloud is there all the time," says Guy Kewney, a veteran technology journalist.

"It's good not to trust major services too much. As we've all discovered when the power goes down in our homes, it shouldn't happen, but boy do you have to throw away a lot of food when it does," he adds.

So when the connection to the cloud collapses, easy access to data goes with it.

There are dozens of applications living in the cloud to assist your digital life. Click here to see a selection of some of the best cloud applications.

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