What actually is the Cloud?

G DATA Guidebook

People are always happy to talk about the weather, so maybe it is not a surprise that the Cloud has a certain fascination as well for many people. But while a conventional cloud basically consists of a collection of water droplets, the digital Cloud captures the imagination with its ability to store private and business data. Find out more about the Cloud below to prevent it being just a nebulous entity to you.

What is Cloud storage?

Imagine you have made a cake. But instead of then putting your treat in the fridge at home and asking everybody to walk over to your fridge to get a slice, you place it on a coffee table that is easy for all your friends, relatives and colleagues to reach. Sharing something good with others while at the same time saving space in your fridge does not get easier than this.

Before you go and place your digital reserves on the coffee table, you should consider which table you are putting the cake on and who you want to invite. If you have used your digital baking to make a pie chart with Excel, Numbers or a similar application, you clearly do not want to give a piece of it to just anyone. The recipe for responsible Cloud computing definitely needs a dash of caution. 

How does Cloud computing work?

Now set the imaginary high-calorie treat to one side for a minute and think about your hard disk instead. Much of what is stored on it would be very convenient to have with you at all times, no matter where you go. Storing this data in the Cloud makes it easy for you to access it from almost any computer or mobile device in the world. To make this possible, you store your folders and files on an external server belonging to the respective Cloud provider. To do so, you will generally need to log in with your user name or email address and a password. Then you can access your photos as well as your digital paperwork and documentation.

What you have is essentially data exchange with no storage medium.

How do Cloud storage solutions differ?

Being able to use the Cloud as an outsourced storage location usually requires just a few clicks. Cloud solutions for data backup can basically be divided into two categories: in one of them you just store the data on an external server. The other category allows you to synchronise locally stored documents with the Cloud. For the first type, you use an upload platform via your web browser. You call up the relevant website, enter your login information and can then upload your data to an available server. If you also want to access or download it locally, many Cloud providers simplify this by way of an app. After setting this up, it will then automatically upload and save the current version of a document or folder you are working with to the Cloud. Going back to our cake / table picture, you have not one cake on an external table, but two cakes – one in your fridge, and a second in the Cloud. If you want to access your data even when you have no Internet access, you need to make it available offline, i.e. download it.

What can the Cloud do?

Remaining flexible is the requirement behind the rapid expansion in Cloud services. When a company grows, the infrastructure needs to keep up, too. Anyone who does not want to keep adding new hard drives and servers can easily outsource processing power and storage capacity to the Cloud. Many providers of Cloud solutions operate entire server farms, the processing power of which they rent out to users. According to this principle, the computing power used can easily be increased or reduced. This scalability is one of the biggest advantages of the Cloud. Investing in hardware that may be obsolete at some point can be prevented by outsourcing to external servers. The storage space reserved can be used in a wide range of ways, which also comes in handy for private users.

What do I need the Cloud for?

The benefits are obvious: You guarantee that the data on all devices connected to the Cloud is always the same. Some storage services also retain older versions of files for a limited period so you can restore them. At the same time, you save valuable storage space on your computer, smartphone or tablet. But the Cloud can do even more. You can effectively protect yourself against criminals – Cloud backups are an effective means of avoiding the horrors of cyber extortionists and ransomware. If you know your digital baby photos or videos from your world trip are secured in an outsourced storage location, nobody can blackmail you by encrypting them. Many security solutions take this worry away and automatically set up a Cloud backup of your valuable data.

How is data stored in the Cloud?

Many services work according to the following principle: File 1, the original, sits on Computer A. File 1 is copied to the Cloud from there. A connected smartphone or the next computer – B – sees that there is now a copy of File 1 in the Cloud. Now comes down to the settings for your Cloud: Do devices automatically download the new file, or do you prefer just to download manually as required? With the first option, you need storage space on two devices and to set up storage in the Cloud. With the second solution, the storage space on the device remains free, and an index simply shows which files are available to download from the Cloud. The pre-requisite for this is that you are connected to the Internet.

Where does the Cloud store my data?

Much more interesting than the question of “How” is the “Where” question when it comes to using the Cloud. This is because the location of the coffee table is rarely a critical factor in whether or not you need to expect uninvited guests. Germany has some of the strictest data protection laws in the world. If your data is on a server in Germany, access to it is clearly regulated. This is quite different in, for example, the USA. There, Cloud services come under the Patriot Act, an anti-terrorism law with far-reaching consequences for data protection and the privacy of citizens. Under this legislation, the FBI, CIA and NSA can access data you have stored on Cloud servers in the USA without you knowing anything about it and without requiring a judicial decree. For the Cloud provider, a suspicion of a federal agency is enough to force the provider to disclose its data. You should also exercise caution with servers that are not in the USA but belong to US companies. Therefore, you should generally ensure that you only put your cake on tables belonging to hosts whose table manners you trust.

How can I protect my data in Cloud storage systems?

  • Read the contract: 
    In the past, it was the case that Cloud providers specified in the terms of their contract that they are allowed to forward the data stored by their customers at will. The only help here is to read the terms of the contract and, if necessary, move over to another provider who is a little less generous with your photos, documents and files. Also beware of the location of the servers provided and the associated legislation.
  • Note the terms and conditions:
    You should also note what demands your Cloud provider is making. With some services, you are allowing the operator of the servers to access your data or even use it. So make sure you choose a Cloud service where the data remains your inalienable property, and which nobody can access without your approval. 
  • Be mindful of encryption:
    Not all providers encrypt your data en route to the Cloud. If your photos are floating around unsecured in the Cloud, criminals can access that data. In some cases, the data is left unencrypted on the server. So, either decide not to store any valuable data with such providers – or choose another provider who offers encrypted data transfer and storage.
  • Encrypt locally:
    If sensitive data really needs to be secure, you should encrypt it locally. You can use dedicated tools to convert your data into code that is illegible to outsiders. The files only become readable again by using the right key – and you decide who has that key.
  • Protect sensitive data:
    Being able to access your data from anywhere is convenient, but not all data should be available everywhere and all the time. Passwords and account data do not belong in the Cloud, especially if unencrypted. Specially developed password managers are recommended for securing access data. These also store the sensitive data in a Cloud safe that only releases the data again once a master password has been entered.
  • Learn to share:
    With the majority of providers, other people – and not just people you know – can work on a shared folder simply by using a cryptic URL, not by logging in. It is of course unlikely that somebody would simply stumble across the address of your shared data by chance, but the folder is there on the Internet, unprotected and freely accessible. More secure are solutions that only permit sharing between registered users or changes to the privacy settings.
  • Disconnect from time to time: 
    To ensure you only share data stored in the Cloud with those you want to share it with, you should log out of the web browser after every session. If you store the access data for the Cloud in the app, anyone who finds the device can access your data, change it or delete it. Therefore, simply log out of the Cloud after you have uploaded or downloaded anything.
  • Protect the device: 
    Anyone with their Cloud provider’s app on their smartphone, tablet or computer should basically protect the device with a code or password. Otherwise unauthorised individuals are able to not only access the device but also get hold of the often very private data in the Cloud and manipulate it or delete it forever. Part of this protection of course is a reliable security solution on every device you use to access the Cloud.