Modern technology too often uses unclear phrases to describe new technologies whose meanings can be tough to comprehend from their contexts. “Big data,” “internet of things,” and “5G” all come to mind.

However, few are more confusing than “the cloud,” the invisible data storage system that seems to exist in the ether around us, despite being made of very real and physical components. Let’s take a moment to learn just what “the cloud” is, so you can understand what is meant the next time you hear a tech person toss the term around.

What does the cloud do?

Hallway with computer servers on each side
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At its most basic, the cloud is the umbrella term for the global network of servers that store data. This data can be almost anything. This includes a text document saved to Google Drive, a file shared by colleagues over Dropbox, or a song that an artist makes available through SoundCloud. The data that make up these files is hosted on server farms, some of which may be owned by the companies themselves, others of which are rented.

The main appeal of utilizing the cloud instead of saving files on a physical drive or a local network is that once the files are on these systems, they can be accessed from anywhere by anyone. It is this kind of access that allows virtual teams to collaborate around the globe and allows today's hyper-mobile workforce to engage with projects from remote settings.

How do you get to the cloud?

Even if you don’t realize it, you probably interact with the cloud on a regular basis. Most cloud-based services are designed to be accessible from a simple web browser on a desktop or mobile device.  Many functions we depend on rely on the cloud, such as email services like Yahoo Mail and Gmail.

However, the cloud can be utilized to perform more advanced functions than just this. Cloud servers are high end pieces of technology, and other devices can take advantage of their computing powers.

For example, a popular new piece of technology is Google’s Chromebook, which is a low-cost laptops running on comparatively cheap, low-powered hardware. They are entirely dependent on an internet connection to hook up to cloud-connected apps and services, meaning that you can get high-level functionality out of inexpensive equipment.

Cloud storage helps preserve data

Computer hard drive plugged into mac laptop
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Storing data on the cloud instead of on a hard drive not only makes it easy to reach from anywhere, it helps save local storage space and ensures that file’s safety. Tools such as Google Photos can be set up to automatically upload photos to cloud storage, meaning that your phone never fills up, you can take as many photos as you want, and if your phone gets damaged, the photos won’t be lost.

Are there any risks with the cloud?

As with any new technology, there are some things that you should be aware of. Since cloud-based data requires an internet connection, if you find yourself without one, you cannot access your data unless you pull a hard copy off before you lose service. In addition, data that exists someplace beyond your phone or desktop is at a slight security risk, so be aware of this when saving sensitive information.

Finally, since the data leaves your physical control when it goes on the cloud, you can’t protect it from being destroyed by some sort of disaster at the server farm. However, most servers include more back up and safety systems than the average user would have anyway, so this risk is negligible.

So, the next time your coworker sends you a document to review or a friend shares a song with you, remember, it is all thanks to the collaborative power of the cloud.