Hands up if you’re not 100 per cent sure what ‘the cloud’ means? Don’t worry, you’re definitely not the only one – it’s a term that continues to bamboozle even as it gets ever more ubiquitous in our lives.

The fact is, you’re almost certainly using it without even realising it. In a nutshell, the cloud lets people store their digital data (like MP3 files, documents, photos, presentations and so on) on secure, distant servers instead of on their own PC – or, if they prefer, as well as on their own PC. They can then access this information from anywhere in the world on any device they own.

When you upload a picture to your Facebook account, you’re handing the image over to Facebook to look after – although you may also have a copy of it on your own hard drive. As long as you have an internet connection, the cloud lets you see those Facebook photos on your digital device whether you’re at home, at work, or on holiday.

‘The cloud is like a hard drive you don’t have to own,’ says Nick Braund, head of technology and innovation at PHA Media. ‘It exists through other companies and it doesn’t take up space on any of your devices. It genuinely makes life easier, and security on cloud technology is incredibly advanced. It means you are able to have your information, your memories, anything you want anywhere in the world.’

In the light of global concerns about cyber security, storing your data on the cloud certainly makes a lot of sense, because it means that a compromised PC needn’t mean that you risk losing all of your memories, documents, songs and so on to a criminal demanding a king’s ransom. In fact, if you had diligently stored everything that was important to you on the cloud and have a Dh1,000 laptop that is hacked, you’d probably be better off buying a new shiny new laptop than handing over a Dh1,500 ransom.

As well as being a place to store your private files, the cloud also reduces the need to clog up a computer or mobile device with lots of memory-hogging software. In the old days, you would download software and it would sit there on your machine waiting to be used. Now you can access thousands of different software programmes via the internet without having to download any of them.

If this sounds confusing, just think of Gmail on your PC. You don’t have to download it – you simply access it via the internet. Making use of software applications online like this means you can see maps of every city on the planet, you can design websites, you can handle social media accounts and do countless other things on whatever device is to hand.

Countless apps make good use of the cloud, too; Spotify and Netflix on your phone or tablet, for example, are merely a gateway to thousands of hours of music and movies that are hosted remotely. If you tried storing all that data yourself, you’d need a seriously impressive hard drive.

‘If you want to find a phone number, share a photo or see a home video when you’re away,’ says Braund, ‘the cloud is the answer. It connects people and brings them together and it allows us to look after our computers better because they’re not being clogged up with huge files that can potentially slow them down.’

Cloud computing has been a huge hit with businesses, who are now able to do things online that would once have been very expensive. Small businesses are especially well looked after, with affordable accounting, HR and customer relationship management tools that once needed personalised, hands-on solutions, the cost of which could cripple young companies just a few years ago.

There are specialist tools for salesmen, for marketing people – anyone and everyone with a business to run. Asmaa Al Shabibi, director of the Al Quoz-based Lawrie Shabibi art gallery, has been using specialist cloud software Artlogic since her gallery opened five years ago. ‘It’s a lifesaver in terms of being able to access our inventory, images and contacts,’ she says. ‘They also provide an app that we use to send images to clients from our phones. This means that at art fairs, dinner parties, meetings or when we are travelling we can easily send out images and also draw up invoices.’ If she had to rely on someone finding images and other files back at the office, she says, it would slow everything down.

One popular cloud-based tool used by countless businesses is Google Drive, the internet giant’s file storage and synchronisation service that allows people to store information online and access it on any device. Steve Thompson, founder of the Dubai Polo Academy, is a fan.

‘We can run the whole business from a single laptop,’ says Steve, ‘but because there’s always the chance it could get lost or stolen, it makes sense for us to have everything backed up online so that we could retrieve it in an emergency. Google Drive is costs just a few dollars a month for 100GB of storage, and it means that we can access what we need from anywhere.’

Living on cloud nine: how we can all use this technology

If you’re thinking that the cloud’s only for business, then guess again. It can make all our lives simpler and more efficient – here’s how…

Notes and planning Evernote is like a big online junk drawer that you can access from all your devices. Throw audio files, pictures, notes and random documents into it and they’ll be at your fingertips the next time you need them, wherever you are. Basic accounts are free, with Evernote Premium (with text search in PDFs and live chat support plus a whole lot more storage) costing USD $59 per year.

Says Nick Braund: ‘It’s great because it means you no longer have to forward emails to yourself or find a USB stick. It’s all about putting information to hand like it never was before and giving people the opportunity to be more efficient.’

Trello is chiefly be aimed at businesses, but it’s also a clever way to manage multiple projects like holidays or birthday parties – it’s like a stack of ‘to do’ cards that you see on your PC, tablet or phone, which can be shared with others, colour coded and much more. The basic version is free. Also worth a look: Microsoft OneNote, Google Keep and Dropbox Paper.

Photos It’s easy for your computer to enter what sounds like its death throes when you open wherever your images are all stored – such as Apple Photos. A few dozen pictures per week adds up to 10,000 shots in a decade, and that could easily add up to 20GB or more. Why not store your photos online?

A free Google Drive account includes access to Google Photos, which lets you quietly upload every single photo stored on your hard drive (or taken on your synced smartphone) as you go about your business. Best of all, if you only upload relatively low res (but still perfectly decent quality) versions, there’s no limit to how many images you can store. Similarly generous is Yahoo-owned Flickr, which offers a whole terabyte (1,000GB) of free storage. That’s good for around half a million photos, and you can store video files on both Flickr and Google Photos, too.

Budgeting One of the biggest selling points of PCs when they became popular in the 1990s was that they often came with some budgeting software. It was a taster of what was to come and today tools like Toshl let you handle your finances extremely easily.

It’s great for tracking expenses and seeing where your money goes, and it has some helpful goal-setting functions, too. Best of all, it’s free and it works across all devices (a beefed-up version that allows you to upload receipt photos, add reminders and more costs USD $19.99 a year).

If you have a US bank account, Mint is the best-known and most acclaimed of the multi-platform cloud apps for budgeting 
(it doesn’t currently work with UAE banks).

Data back up Copying your hard drive used to mean connecting an external hard drive to your computer and letting it run for hours on end. Regular back-ups could be scheduled (Apple computers’ Time Machine has been doing this since 2007), but your data was still lost if your hardware went up in smoke.

Over the past five years as cloud-based storage became a more popular solution, prices of putting all of your files onto a remote server have tumbled. You can now buy 100GB of remote storage for under USD $5 per month. Some of the best-known names are Mozy, IDrive and SugarSync, but everyday tools like Google Drive and Dropbox allow you to upload important files easily, too.