Ahead in the cloud

Rather than install expensive software on your computer, these days it’s often easier to run your applications in the cloud.

Personal computing has typically meant you buy a program and install it on your computer. If you want to write a school assignment or business report, you probably turn to a package such as Microsoft Office. Working with photos might mean getting one of the Adobe programs, such as Lightroom or Photoshop. Bookkeepers would load an application such as MYOB or Reckon.

Just as services such as Apple’s iTunes have revolutionised the way we buy music, the rise of software as a service (SaaS) means you’ll now find online equivalents for almost all your desktop software. Relying on nothing more than a web browser such as Internet Explorer, Safari, Firefox or Chrome, you can work on Office documents, read your email, chat with friends, check your calendar, update your finances, edit photos, listen to music and do all your other day-to-day computing tasks.

Working in the cloud might sound scary but you’ve already been doing it for years if you check your Gmail, Yahoo! or Hotmail email online rather than downloading it using desktop software such as Outlook Express. SaaS simply takes the webmail idea and applies it to all the applications on your computer.

What you see in the browser often looks and feels just like desktop software, but behind the scenes all the work is happening in a giant data centre rather than on your computer. If you need to keep working when you’re on the road, you’ll often find mobile apps that let you access your files from a smartphone or tablet.

The beauty of SaaS is that all your files are stored in ”the cloud” – a fancy name for those giant data centres – rather than stored on your computer. This makes it easy to jump between computers and other devices during the day. You simply log into your account and pick up working where you left off.

SaaS offers several benefits over using desktop applications. Software updates and security patches are no longer your problem, as they’re automatically applied in the cloud.

Meanwhile, if your computer is lost or your hard drive fails, everything is safely stored in a giant data centre.

The cost of buying and upgrading expensive software might be reduced if you can subscribe by the month rather than pay in a lump sum every few years. This makes it easier for small businesses to punch above their weight, tapping into enterprise-grade financial packages and other software, such as customer relationship management, project management and human resources tools. Paying for cloud software per user, per month might help a small company to expand as its business grows.

Cloud computing also makes it easier for staff to work from home or on the road, rather than staying chained to their desks. Shuffling files between your computers also becomes a thing of the past, once you embrace the cloud. This is particularly useful if you need to share files and collaborate with friends and colleagues, whether they’re on the other side of the room or the other side of the world.

Rather than bounce files around via email or a USB stick, losing track of which is the current version, online software suites, such as the various office packages, make it easy to work as a team. Everyone shares the same files and can even edit the same document at the same time.

Of course, working in the cloud isn’t without risks. It’s important to have a plan B in case disaster strikes when a school assignment, business report or tax return is due. An internet outage or power failure could cut you off from your files, although you might get around this by using your smartphone to generate a wi-fi hot spot for your computer.

Data centres aren’t immune from disasters either, and there’s always the chance they could lose your files. Before handing over your documents to a cloud service, it’s important to test it for a while to see if it’s reliable and it meets all your needs.

If you are ready to embrace the cloud, try to keep one foot on the ground. Look for a service that gives you the ability to synchronise your cloud files to your desktop computer, or a way to keep working in ”offline mode” if your internet access is cut. This way, you’re not completely left in the lurch during an outage. Otherwise you’ll want to regularly back up your cloud files to your computer, just to be safe. This might seem to defeat the purpose of the cloud, but if you were working on your desktop you’d also be backing up files – probably to the cloud.

Finally, consider how you’d get your data back out of the cloud if you wanted to move to another service or switch back to desktop software. Getting your files back should be straightforward when it comes to office documents but could be more complicated when it comes to financial packages and other software dependent on back-end databases.

Try to leave your options open, rather than locking yourself into the one cloud service forever.

Many forms of cloud software

Office suitesGoogle Drive, Microsoft Office Web Apps, Zoho

Photo editingAdobe Photoshop Express, Pixlr, FotoFlexer

Note takingEvernote, OneNote, Google Keep

AccountingXero, Saasu, MYOB LiveAccounts, Reckon Accounts Hosted

Project managementBasecamp, LiquidPlanner, TeamBox

Customer relationship managementNetSuite, Salesforce杭州夜生活m, SugarCRM, Highrise

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.