Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Technology Boot Camp Week 2: Cloud Computing and the Googleverse

Welcome to Week 2! Lots to look at this week, so let’s get right into it. Remember, if you ever need any help, don’t hesitate to contact us.

cloud computing

Cloud computing?

By now, many of you have heard the phrase “cloud computing” or read about storing your stuff “in the cloud.” But what does that mean?

Your personal computer (PC) contains storage space for things like software (for example, Microsoft Office) and files (say, documents you create with Microsoft Office). This is handy in that it allows quick access to those programs and files, regardless of when you sit down at your computer.

But what happens if that computer fails? Or you’re somewhere else and need to get to those programs or files? To get your files to another computer, you would have to have emailed them as an attachment or saved them to a flash drive. Then you still have to put them on the other computer and hope that computer has the right software for your file.

Sounds inconvenient and complicated, doesn’t it? Rather than rely on constant access to your personal computer, more and more services allow you to access software and store files on the internet. You can then get to the software and your files on any device (a computer, smart phone, etc.) that has an internet connection. This is what’s meant by cloud computing.

Google is one of the companies that is pushing its users toward cloud computing. Many of their services are intended to get people away from storing data on their PC and move them into the cloud. The most obvious example of this is Gmail, Google’s email service. Like other online mail services, such as Yahoo! Mail and Microsoft’s Hotmail, Gmail gives you the ability to send and store email messages in the cloud, so that you can access them from any internet-accessible computer.

Web-based email has been around for years, but now you can do much more than just email. Google Docs is an especially good example.

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Introducing Google Docs

Google Docs is an office productivity suite similar to Microsoft Office with a critical difference: You access it over the web rather than via your PC. The suite includes Document, Presentation, Spreadsheet, Drawing and Form. Google Docs does not have all the same features as Microsoft Office, but it does have a few key selling points:

  1. It’s free. All you need is a Google account.
  2. Google provides free space to store your documents online, accessible from any Internet-connected PC.
  3. Google Docs provides online tools to work on documents collaboratively.

LFPL now offers a class each month on Google Docs. We encourage you to take a look at the course handout, which contains an in-depth tour of Google Docs.

What Else Does Google Offer?

Google offers a variety of services that you might find useful. We encourage you to explore and play with these sites and get a sense of all the things you can do and accomplish in the cloud using only your web browser.

Google Books allows you to search the full-text of books, and if the copyright has expired, you may be able to download a copy directly to your computer.

Google News identifies top new stories and groups together all the coverage of those stories from news sources around the globe.

Google Calendar is Google’s free web calendar service. Access your calendar from anywhere with an internet connection, email your schedule or event invitations to friends and coworkers, email yourself reminders about upcoming appointments, and more.

Google Reader tracks your favorite websites and blogs so you can follow updates and see when new content is available. Click here for a quick instructional video.

Google Scholar is very much like Google’s general search site, but the results are limited to scholarly content on the web.

Google Patents allows you to search more than seven million patents.

Google Sites lets you easily create a website, from scratch or using templates.

Google Maps is a Google feature you’ve probably used before to get directions. But have you seen all you can do with personalized Google maps? Check out this user guide to get started making customized maps of your own.

Google Translate provides quick translations between any of 58 different languages. The translation may not always be perfect, but it gets the job done if you need a quick translation of a simple word or phrase.

We also recommend you take a look at Google Chrome, which is Google’s very own web browser. Compare Google Chrome with Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox and other popular web browsers to see if it is right for you.

Google Chrome is software that is installed on your PC, which means that, in and of itself, Chrome is not a cloud application. But Google is so confident that cloud computing is the future, they’ve developed a computer operating system that completely does away with locally installed software other than the Google Chrome browser. You can read a bit more about Chrome OS in this article.

cloud computing

Is it just Google?

Not at all. Many other companies, large and small, are offering cloud-based services. The following is just a small sample of what’s available.

Productivity suites:

Beside Google Docs, there are a few other good online productivity options including Microsoft’s own browser-based version of their Office suite called Office Web Apps. Another well-regarded option is ThinkFree.

Online file storage and sharing:

SkyDrive, part of Microsoft’s Windows Live set of services, offers a significant amount of free file storage space. Dropbox is a popular service that provides up to 2 GB of storage space and makes it easy to create shared folders that allow you to share files with family, friends, colleagues, etc.

Online backup:

Taking file storage to the next level, online backup services can make periodic copies of the important files on your personal computer and store them in the cloud, so that you can recover them if your computer fails. There are numerous options with different pricing plans and features. Some of the biggest names are Carbonite, CrashPlan and Mozy.

Bookmarking:

A traditional web browser allows you to bookmark websites so you can easily revisit them without having to remember or type in the address. There are a variety of websites that allow you to save your bookmarks in the cloud, so that you can access them from any computer. Some popular examples are Delicious and Diigo. Because many of these sites incorporate features designed to encourage the sharing of links amongst users, they are often referred to as social bookmarking sites.

Give it a try!

We strongly encourage those of you with a Google account to visit Google Docs and experiment with creating a document. If you know others participating in the program or have a friend with a Google account, try collaborating on a document with several people. Google provides some helpful instructional videos for new Google Docs users here.

Also be sure to take some time to explore and play with the other sites listed above.

On your blog, write about whether or not having your documents stored online is a good thing. Can you think of a scenario in which some of Google Docs collaboration features might come in handy? What about the other sites listed above?

Thanks for joining us. If you have questions or other feedback, please use the contact form. Come back next week as we delve into the world of social networking.

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