You've probably heard someone say "The files are stored in the cloud."

And you might have thought "OK, so ... Where are they, exactly?"

"The cloud" is a fitting metaphor for a technology that seems to involve mystery, ambiguity and a little bit of magic. At least, that's the way it seems to the average user.

Most of us know in a superficial way what "the cloud" means, but we're flummoxed whenever we have to try to explain it or even understand it. As is often the case with technology, it's that lack of understanding that makes so many people apprehensive about adopting and using cloud-based apps and services.

It doesn't help that the term has largely been seized by marketing companies and used with little consistency. Not since the word "quantum" has a term been made practically incoherent by marketing slogans and advertising.

The media tends to make things worse, too. Most of their reports about cloud-based technology is either a nebulous misuse of the term or fear mongering about stolen information and files.

We need to cut through all that noise and get right down to the facts. With a little education and advocacy, we can get past all the fear and worry and start making use of what really is an amazing innovation in computing, one that can be applied to the health and safety industry with great results.

What Is the Cloud, Anyway?

What, then, is "the cloud?"

To put it as simply as possible, it's a method of distributing demand for storage and computing power across a network of devices.

Instead of the conventional method of storing a single file in a single place, you can think of cloud storage as storing that file in several different locations. This method allows for less demand on individual computer resources and it gives you the ability to rebuild a file if one, or several, of the devices were to fail.

That's a gross oversimplification. But the methodology behind it is quite complicated and for our purposes, it's enough to think of the cloud as just a way of having your files managed on the internet rather than locally on a hard drive.

Cloud-Based Storage and Data Security

To some organizations, having storage on site feels more secure. They like the comfort of being in direct control of the physical media.

In data management, however, a major consideration is the capacity for disaster recovery. On-site servers are usually configured with redundancy so that they can tolerate some hardware failure locally, but there typically needs to be redundant copies of data stored off-site.

For some companies, particularly smaller ones, this can be a major cost since a second location isn't always readily available. Managing all that storage locally can stretch resources thin. Having cloud-hosted storage for your valuable data incorporates the disaster recovery into the overall storage strategy. That data is safely managed and backed up in such a way that it is retrievable even following a catastrophic event like a fire that takes out all computer hardware on site.

Cloud Tech and Site Security

Site security is the kind of application for which cloud apps have real potential.

Camera feeds and other surveillance data can be streamed to the cloud non-stop. Live "punch in/punch out" data can show accurate numbers and the identities of workers on site. Other live data can also be continuously recorded.

Being able to track and manipulate this kind of information has various wide-reaching implications from schedule management to emergency response.

Real-Time Data Analysis

Collecting data is only part of the picture,. The information has little practical value unless it's also analyzed. Cloud systems allow for that to happen in real time without the need for ongoing human input.

Systems that do the data collection can generate real-time analytics for managing sites with no lag time and reduced local administrative requirements. A mountain of information can be collected and autonomously curated with simple programs to generate accurate, real-time reporting and statistics.

Human error is largely removed from the process, which is important because the integrity of that information may be critical later for investigation or continuous improvement activities.

Accessibility and Convenience

Once data is collected and organized, security personnel can capture and oversee information from a central terminal. In fact, the storage in the cloud means this data can be accessed from any terminal with the right log in credentials.

Site supervisors or management could have the capacity to view a dashboard from a smartphone, tablet, or any device with access to the internet, whether they are present on site or not. This gives supervisors the ability to monitor multiple sites remotely in a way that wouldn't be possible with locally hosted data.

Cloud apps and services offer device and location independence when accessing files and media. The days of a file residing on a hard drive in a computer in one static location are nearing an end. Now, the file's location is distributed, and access to the computing and storage power is leased rather than owned, so in a sense the management of IT infrastructure is at least partially outsourced. Your data is in the hands of specialized companies with IT professionals at the helm, and the cost of infrastructure can be dramatically reduced.

Protecting Cloud-Based Data

Cloud computing may be an incredible innovation, but it's not without its controversies. Privacy problems make tantalizing headlines, and despite the fact that we interact with cloud systems every day, some people only really know them from scary stories.

In reality, these systems are far more secure than their technological predecessors, but device independence can be a double-edged sword. While it provides convenience, there is also the potential for third-party interference. We've all heard about celebrities getting photos stolen, companies losing client information, and other frightening cautionary tales about "the cloud."

While the catch-all term "hacked" is often used in describing those events, the reality tends to be variations on "social engineering." Basically, ne'er-do-wells manipulate people into giving up usernames and passwords so that they can gain access to secured files. They don't corrupt the technology itself but engage the weak spot – the user.

The solution is in better cloud security education strategies for workers and awareness of safeguarding passwords, identifying malicious activity. and ensuring the integrity of the systems.

Conclusion

The safety and security industries can be slow to accept changes to established methods, because failure in any system can result in serious consequences. Managing these two functions needs a little extra caution to make sure people, equipment, materials, and the environment are properly protected. However, we can't overlook cloud technology's potential for improving performance.

Perhaps we can strike a balance by approaching this new wave of technology with some caution while still embracing its tremendous potential.