What Is Cloud Computing?

There’s so much kid paperwork to track—immunization and medical records, school forms, phone trees. Don’t you wish you could magically pull whatever you need out of the air? With cloud computing, you can.

Photo by Brian Cairns

You’re on vacation when the Child Who Hates Shoes steps on a rusty nail. The ER doc asks when she had her last tetanus shot. As if you can remember. But then you tap an app to access a record of her shots, search for “tetanus,” and—hurray!—no needle necessary. That’s because your data is stored “in the cloud.”

What is The Cloud?

Cloud computing lets you keep information on a remote server (the cloud), instead of trapped in a computer. You can access your data from a smartphone, a tablet, a laptop, or a desktop—wherever you have an Internet connection. Some cloud services let you share files, so your babysitter, say, will always have a current medication list. It’s also an easier way to transfer large files, like a video of your kid’s flute solo.

How Do You Use It?

After picking a cloud service (read on for some options), log in to the service’s site to upload files, or download the application to your computer, then drag and drop files as you would to a hard drive. (Scan paper copies first to save to your computer.) To access files on the go, download the service’s mobile app. Any changes to a document are synced across all your devices.

Dropbox: One of the most popular options, this service (dropbox.com) lets you share files and photos with anyone, even if the person does not have a Dropbox account. (You can e-mail a link to the file.) The first two gigabytes (GB) of storage are free, as is the app; 100 GB of storage cost $10 a month.

Box: This similar service (box.com) gives more free storage (5 GB). The upgraded version costs $15 a month, but it has a handy feature: If you can’t remember the file name of Junior’s allergies list, search for “peanuts” and it comes right up.

Google Drive: This service (drive.google.com) holds on to old versions of files for up to 30 days, so you won’t be out of luck if you accidentally delete something. It also converts files from more than 30 programs, so you can save and open those summer-camp forms even if they were created with software you don’t have. The first 5 GB are free; the next 100 GB cost $5 a month.

iCloud: Apple’s iCloud service (apple.com/icloud) lets you access music, photos, apps, documents, and other info from multiple devices but doesn’t offer file sharing. (To do that, download FileApp Pro, for $5.)