What is the cloud and what does it have to do with Microsoft Office

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You’ve all heard about “The Cloud” as if everyone knows what it is.  It’s clear from recent reader messages that not everyone knows about The Cloud. Or they think they know. Or they don’t realize how much the cloud can and will do.

Office-Watch.com explains the cloud and how it applies to Microsoft Office.  What applies to Office also works for other cloud offerings.

Microsoft and other cloud companies promote the advantages of cloud features.  In a future article we’ll look at the problems and concerns with cloud storage and services.

The physical cloud

At its core, the cloud is a large collection of computers with big hard drives attached.

When we say large, we really mean ginormous.  Whole warehouse size buildings full of computers, network connections, backup generators and batteries, fire prevention, security and air conditioning. Yes, aircon because all those computers generate a lot of heat and they’d melt without extra cooling.

When you connect to Microsoft’s OneDrive you’re connecting to their computers acting together as a single unit. You don’t know where the computers are and theoretically you don’t need to know (maybe you should, more on that later).  In some cases, you can choose the data center or broad region for legal reasons. But mostly your data can be stored anywhere and might even be moved without you noticing.

When you save a file to OneDrive it can go to one of many Microsoft server locations around the world. Microsoft has ‘data centers’ in across North America, Europe, Asia and Australia with one in South America and plans for Africa

Microsoft’s map of their existing and planned data centers.

It’s called a ‘cloud’ because the physical location doesn’t matter … it’s just out there somewhere, like clouds.

Wherever you are, you can get to your cloud store with an internet connection and the right login.

For Microsoft Office users we’ll split the cloud into two types:

  • Passive or storage cloud
  • Active or computing cloud

Passive or storage cloud

This is the cloud you’re probably most familiar with.  OneDrive, Dropbox, iCloud and others store your files in their servers until you need them.

They also have synchronization services to make sure the files on your computer are the same as the one on their cloud system.

The same applies to databases in the cloud like Microsoft’s Azure system.  Your database program, like Microsoft Access does the hard work. Azure stores the data and makes it available from anywhere.

Essentially, it’s a passive system.  Your documents, photos and files aren’t changed in any way by the cloud system.

It’s not just files stored in the cloud.  Some Office settings, like the Recent Documents list are saved to Microsoft servers and shared with your other devices.

Active or Computing Cloud

What’s starting to appear in Office is a different type of cloud service. An active system which takes information you provide, runs a program on a cloud service then sends back the result.

That might sound complicated, but you use the active cloud every day.

Any web search is an active cloud program.  You send some information (your search words) to Google, Bing etc.  Their cloud computers run their search program using your search words and send back a page of results and links.  That’s the cloud running a program for you.

The advantage for users is the ability to use enormously complex programs without installing anything on your computer. The software updates and maintenance are handled by the cloud manager.

Cloud Services in Office

There’s already a few active cloud features in Office 2016 for Office 365 customers.  That means information from you and your documents is going to Microsoft, whether you realize it or not.

Microsoft calls them ‘intelligent services’.  At Options | General | Office intelligent services you can turn them on or off.

Microsoft has a list of the Office intelligent services but it’s an incomplete list. Nor is there any list in Office applications of the cloud connections in use.

We’ve looked at some of these features online and in Office 2016 the real startup guide.

Even the ‘Tell me’ box atop the ribbon is a cloud service.

When we typed ‘Page Size’, those words went to Microsoft.  The options displayed are a mix of those generated in Office locally and any recent suggestions from Microsoft.

The ‘Smart Lookup’ option at the bottom of the menu, is another cloud service.  It’s really a web search feature built into Office and appearing in a pane.

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