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Data backup is no joke–when I took my MacBook into the Apple Store this past weekend to drop it off for repairs, the first thing they asked was whether or not I’d backed up my data first. My answer? Of course, three times over! As someone who depends on not just their computer but more importantly the data on that machine to get things done, I don’t mess around. I’ve got a time machine backup at home, a clone of my hard drive in a secure location at the office, and of course, everything is also in the cloud. Planning for that kind of backup takes a little bit of work, but the right tools can help make it easier. I’m going to discuss one such tool today.

You may have noticed a new widget on this site in the sidebar on the right that asks, “How much cloud storage do you need?” I’d strongly encourage you to check it out, because it only takes a minute but can help you get a very accurate picture of roughly how much cloud storage space you’ll need to invest in, and how much money you’ll save by avoiding catastrophic data loss.

First up, let’s talk about storage needs. While the only way to get an exact count of the amount of data you have is to check the document, movie, music and picture folders on your computer itself, as well as find all of your unorganized files on the desktop or squirreled away in other folders, the calculator on this site gives a great estimate.

Based on my estimates, of about 8000 mp3s in my iTunes, 3000 photographs in my collection, and 5000 documents, a few movies and a handful of home movies, I’d say the calculator came pretty darn close to an accurate estimate of 170 GB of total data. Taking a quick peek at the actual files in my home directory, I’d say thats an accurate count of what it would take to back up these vital files. The calculator then shows you a price. Based on an estimate of how much each item is worth (it seems to fairly guess about a dollar for a song, ten for a film, around $45 for a home movie, and so on), you get a dollar representation of how valuable your files are.  In my case, the total came to about a quarter of a million dollars. I’d say that’s possibly an underestimate, as I’ve got a complete record of nearly every file I’ve touched in the past decade and a half or so. Can you really put a price tag on keeping that data secure? I’m not so sure.

The one thing I know is that the peace of mind having multiple backup copies of my data, in a variety of different places including the cloud, buys me an easy quarter million in peace of mind. For a few hundred dollars a year to pay for cloud storage space and replace aging hard drives, I never have to worry about the possibility of losing my data. Sure, my Mac might explode or dissapear before I get it back from Apple, but at least I’ll have my files.

It seems like every college is trying to get into the online university game, and why not? Teachers and students alike can work from wherever they are, it saves the school money which often means lower tuition for students, and for a lot of people it’s way more conductive to a busy lifestyle to check into a class online. But without cloud technology, online universities would be dead in the water.

Why? For one, think about where the data would be stored. When your professor uploads course materials, books, lectures, quizzes, and supplementary materials for the course, where do they go? The cloud!

Cloud storage is the easiest and best way for professors and students to share classroom data and assignments. Sure, you could do it the old way with FTP servers and static web pages, but does that sound like an exciting online university experience to you? It sounds like a jargon-filled mess to me.

For another reason, think about how students work today. An online university means that you aren’t tied to any one place. Going on vacation? Take your iPad and study on the beach. In a rush to a meeting but need to submit an assignment to meet a deadline? Do it from your smartphone!

Cloud technology is what ties all of your data together no matter what kind of device you’re using. Being able to share documents between your computer and your mobile device means you can be a more productive student. For teachers it means they can build classroom content from anywhere.

Without the cloud involved, the online classroom experience loses a lot of its benefits. Sure, online universities existed before the cloud, with clunky interfaces and a high reliance on older tech like web-based forum software and tons of emails. But cloud tech means a more connected classroom with access from anywhere, which is a better experience both for students and educators alike. So it’s no surprise both online universities and cloud technology have been exploding these past few years, as improvements in the technology behind the scenes means a better experience for everyone involved.

One of the most important terms associated with cloud computing is virtualization; a technique through which cloud service providers are able to turn individual servers inside a data center into multiple units.

How is that possible? Software. Virtualization software to be exact.

Virtualization software works by creating multiple virtual operating systems that data centers are able to run on a single server — simultaneously. While you may be running the latest copy of Microsoft Windows or Apple’s OS X on either your personal or work computer, servers inside data centers are actually capable of running several copies of an operating system at the same time. What this means is that instead of being limited to just one set of tasks running at a time, servers can be running dozens if not hundreds of tasks across those multiple operating systems, all on one computer, all at the same time.

If it helps you think about how this works, remember, the servers inside data centers aren’t desktop computers plugged into monitors and aren’t being used by people individually. It’s quite the opposite. Servers are massive resources being controlled in large groups, which usually means that since they don’t need to display anything, and aren’t being used individually, the servers inside data centers are free to perform unusually taxing and complicated computing tasks.

However, virtualization software would be dead in the water without the right hardware to back it up. In fact, there are certain requirements that modern servers have to have in order for this technology to function both efficiently and without sacrificing performance. One such requirement is the ability for modern servers to have multiple cores. In the old days, computers only had one core, which meant it could only be crunching one set of numbers or performing one operation at a time. If another task needed to get done, you’d have to wait for the computer to finish whatever it was currently working on.

Today, even netbooks have at least two cores, and desktop computers for graphics and video professionals often have 12 or more. This means that modern computers can perform a plethora of tasks simultaneously, and all of them at top speed. It’s these kinds of multi-core systems that are often specifically designed for the task of virtualization. In short, a 12-core server is actually designed to be able to run up to 12 simultaneous copies of an operating system without significantly slowing down.

Another requirement that comes with the modern day server is lightning fast storage, in the form of Solid State hard drives (often called SSDs). With so many operating systems and tasks running at the same time, servers that use virtualization need to be able to both access and manipulate data incredibly fast. Therefore, a server running multiple virtualized operating systems may contain several SSDs in order to run at top speed.

In the early days of computing, computers were huge devices containing thousands of vacuum tubes (they look similar to light bulbs) that filled entire rooms and would require their own specialized electric supplies and cooling systems. Today, a computer that once took up an entire room can be made even smaller than the size of your fingernail. But one thing hasn’t changed: we still store computers in giant rooms with sophisticated electric, cooling, and even dust-reducing systems.

We call these complexes “data centers,” a term that at its core means little more than a room containing multiple computers. While this definition probably includes the server room in your typical office building, it more often than not refers to massive complexes that store incredible amounts of data.

Thanks to cloud computing, ubiquitous internet access, smartphones, laptops, and mobile data plans, we increasingly expect our data to travel with us even when our computers cannot. Consumers store almost everything in the cloud today, from their email to their family photos, which means easy access on the go. And where is all that data stored? Data centers.

A single server today is often only a few inches tall, a few feet deep, and can be stacked with dozens of other computers inside a data center. Imagine thousands, even tens of thousands, of such computers all buzzing away together, each packed to the gills with hard drives. That’s what it takes for modern cloud data to function reliably: enormous amounts of data being stored in a single secure location. A data center.

Future Predictions Sound Off: In 5 Years We Won’t Call It “Cloud Computing” It Will Just Be “Computing”

June 13, 2012

I cringe every time I think about how much of my time over the past two decades has been spent worrying about files. Mucking around Window’s File Manager or Mac’s Finder. Copying and backing up files. Losing files. Misplacing files. Desperately trying to organize my files. Promising myself to never save anything on the desktop [...]

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The Reach of Cloud Computing: Amazon’s 1%

June 12, 2012

When people hear the word “Amazon” they usually think of phrases like “online retailer” and “fast shipping.” Some might even think of a river deep in South America and even fewer still may think of “a cloud-based hosting and computational service that powers one percent of the Internet.” Speaking of which, did you even know [...]

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Celebrity Problems – Everyday People

January 30, 2012

It’s a story repeated every few months: a celebrity has their phone broken into, photos or sensitive information get leaked to the press, and everyone has a field day. But data security isn’t just a problem for celebrities, it’s something everyone has to worry about. As we increasingly store sensitive passwords, bank login data and [...]

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What Does the Cloud Mean For Consumer Devices Like the iPod?

November 23, 2011

Consumer devices are quickly splitting into three groups based on the type of connectivity they offer. The first is always-on devices that utilize 3G (and, for some, 4G) networks like smartphones and certain tablets. These devices can get online almost anywhere, and are perfect for data in the cloud—no matter where you are, you have [...]

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Hackers & Cyber Terrorists’ New Tactics

November 17, 2011

So long as there is the is an incentive, be it monetary or access to sensitive information, there will always be hackers trying to break into computers. As we store more and more sensitive information digitally, we increase the risk of hackers attempting to access our data. Whether you work for the government, a corporation [...]

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How The Cloud Shaped Hardware

November 2, 2011

All kinds of hot new laptops are sprouting up lately, with Apple’s MacBook Air set to sell in record numbers this holiday season and fierce competition from the likes of Asus and Acer with their own, eerily similar, laptops based on Intel’s Ultrabook platform. These machines have an awful lot in common, from their blazing [...]

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