Cloud computing may be a term both vague and overused, but it is far more than just the latest buzzword. The “cloud” is another way of referring to the Internet; hence “cloud computing” is simply computing done over the Net. In other words, it’s all about applications that function over the Web, and it indicates a revolutionary way of doing things.

Even if you don’t have a clue as to what it means, you’re already using it on a daily basis. If you check your email on your smartphone, search for information, visit Amazon or Facebook or look at Google Maps, you’ve been interacting with a cloud. And if you didn’t realize it, it worked exactly as it should.

Clouds may be revolutionary but the idea is not exactly new: at one time way back when, computers were hulking mainframe boxes in their own specially-refrigerated rooms attached to multiple terminals close by where operators inputted programs. The terminals were no more than teletype keyboards with zero independent memory or computing power. While the modern cloud system is vastly more sophisticated and widespread, the principle of sharing pooled computing resources remains. And it’s what gives cloud computing its tremendous potential, and unique risks.

The term “clouds” suggests nice fluffy aggregations of data floating peacefully “out there” in cyberspace, but Internet clouds can be as varied as the real things are. Clouds can be private, behind firewalls requiring passwords to access, or like Google, open to all. And they are all as different as their hosts. Like everything else on the Net, how everything works, the liabilities and duties of providers, even who owns the data and what rights users have, is still very much a work in progress.

What users own varies by provider, but often it’s not much. Users of Google or Facebook have few rights, not even to their own data. A user could, say, upload a collection of rare scanned photos, a lifetime of work, and theoretically, a provider might be able to anonymize it and sell it without permission or acknowledgement. No less a person that Steve Wozniak, the co-inventor of the Apple computer, calls it “horrendous.” He foresees not only unpredictable security problems resulting from complex systems interacting on the same platforms but some profound ownership issues.

With the cloud, you don’t own anything. You already signed it away. I want to feel that I own things […] A lot of people feel, ‘Oh, everything is really on my computer,’ but I say: the more we transfer everything onto the web, onto the cloud, the less we’re going to have control over it.

Coming from Woz, this should be taken seriously. If anyone, he knows that setting up one of these systems is not trivial. For instance, Apple’s still trying to make its fourth cloud platform, the iCloud work after three failures, and facing plenty of problems and complaints.

But there are other dangers, also. There have been cases of “data leaks” between accounts – in one case, from data of former customers into active customer accounts. Worse, there is the possibility of being hacked simply as means for a criminal to get in. Chinese government hackers apparently did this with Gmail last year, looking for political dissidents as well as financial and proprietary business information.

So users are advised to know their provider, and realize that bigger is not necessarily better. It depends on the purpose. While obviously it’s advantageous to have a huge database for searches and maps, applications over the Internet run just about the same everywhere. Smaller providers can often do the job as good or better. For one thing, there’s more friendly, personalized service, secondly there’s simply not as much risk for lower-value targets.

Southwest Cyberport is proud to offer cloud services for both email and backup. Our popular Roundcube and other Web-based email clients can be accessed anywhere. They work with our suite of client-defined spam filters in the same way our “regular” email services does, but the mail resides on our servers in the cloud, not on your machine.

Our online backup service, SWCP BUS, is a remote data storage service, designed to keep files on a laptop or entire system current. Being in the cloud, the BUS makes transferring files between machines easy. It supports encryption and best of all, the user owns all the data.

So before you choose a cloud provider, take a look at the underside. Clouds may seem much the same, but they can be very different things. One may offer gentle shade, while another may just blow. And remember, you get what you pay for.