You have likely heard the term “cloud computing” before; but perhaps you have wondered what exactly it is and how it affects you.
It may be a relatively new term, but make no mistake about it… “the cloud” and cloud-based technology solutions are dramatically changing the way data is stored and shared around the globe. And yes, it’s impact is being felt in the world of genealogy too.
So What Exactly is Cloud Computing?
Forget about technology for a moment and think about clouds in nature. What exactly are those white, puffy things in the sky? Well, in the simplest of terms, they are water storage and transportation devices. Moisture is transported from the earth to clouds by way of evaporation; and clouds, in turn, store and transport that moisture somewhere else and ultimately send it back down to earth in the form of rain. Yes, this explanation is rather simple and unscientific; but is accurate nonetheless.
One can explain cloud computing in an equally unscientific but nonetheless accurate manner. That is to say, those imaginary cloud thingies in cyberspace are simply storage and transportation devices — except that they store and transport data instead of moisture. In more technical terms, when you and I interact with “the cloud”, we send data from our computer (i.e., evaporation) and store it in offsite servers (i.e. the cloud). From there, it is transported virtually anywhere in the world; and, ultimately, it is called “back down to earth” when we summon it to our laptop, our smartphone, or our tablet.
The biggest difference between cloud computing and clouds in nature are the words “send” and “summon” in the previous paragraph. That is to say, we humans haven’t yet figured out how to control Mother Nature’s water transportation and storage system. We can’t press a button to cause specific water molecules to evaporate. And we can’t press a button to cause certain clouds to rain back down to earth when we want them to. We DO, however, have such control with cloud computing. We control the data. We control when and where we send it; and we control who has the ability to access it.
This really is a simple concept, right? But how exactly has this “revolutionized” genealogy? In my opinion, genealogy has been transformed by cloud computing in four major ways: the cloud provides greater portability and ease of access to one’s files; it fosters greater collaboration with other researchers; it exponentially increases the amount of original research information readily available; and it offers protection from the tragedy of fire or some other personal disaster.
Portability and Ease of Access
Years ago, when I began genealogy, personal computers didn’t exist. The closest technology came to my research were the copy machines I used to copy materials I had found in libraries and archive rooms, and the typewriter I used to type up my scribbled notes into something worth sharing with others. Years later, personal computers entered the scene and, along with software programs like Family Tree Maker, transformed the way I stored and viewed my files. Yet more years later, my research was again transformed with the advent of the internet.
Through all of these transformative changes, however, one thing remained constant: all my family tree data remained stuck on the hard drive of my clunky computer (which really wasn’t something I could bring with me to a library). Likewise, all of my published historical articles remained in PDF files or Microsoft Word on my computer’s hard drive. Perhaps more telling to how cumbersome my entire process was in the pre-cloud era, most of my files remained exactly that — files — manilla file folders full of my notes and records and stored away in file cabinets and file boxes.
Fast forward to the present… From January 2013, I have been migrating my family tree records to Ancestry.com’s online family tree and data storage system. In addition to my family tree, I have been slowly migrating copies of photos, documents, articles and other valuable information to this online system. Ancestry.com is also the manufacturer of Family Tree Maker software; but I find their online, cloud-based system to be much more efficient and more attuned to the future direction of genealogy overall. (In fact, my personal prediction is that more and more genealogists will use the cloud-based option with each passing year; and portability and ease of access are driving this trend.)
With my busy life, portability and ease of access are very important. It used to be that, to do my research, I had to be tethered to my computer or carry around a briefcase full of paper files and documents. (I did both). Today, thanks to the cloud, I am able to access my files virtually anywhere in the world, as long as I have access to wifi or a cell signal. Whether I am sitting in a library, on my living room sofa at home, on a train or in an airplane, I can use my iPad, my iPhone or my laptop to access and work on my files. And since my files are now being stored in an off-site server (“the cloud”), any changes I make using my iPad are immediately synced and accessible via my laptop or phone. (Of course, this concept of cloud computing isn’t restricted to genealogy alone. In fact, this article that you are reading now was written using cloud technology — as I wrote parts of it on my iPad, parts of it on my iphone and parts of it on my laptop!)
Any genealogist will tell you that some of their most meaningful discoveries actually came about through collaboration with others. Collaboration is, in fact, a critically important part of genealogy overall. In order for two or more individuals to even be able to collaborate, however, they have to first know that the other parties exist. Online forums and message boards are a convenient place to find and connect with such researchers; but forum and message board postings quickly become outdated. (Sometimes, the family records posted are inaccurate and the original poster neglects to post an update when they correct the erroneous information on their own computer. More often than this, however, the contact information for the poster has changed and it becomes impossible to track them down and communicate.)
Cloud-based systems such as Ancestry.com’s online family tree program eliminate the problem of outdated records and contact information. Yes, to be sure, there are just as many errors that inadvertently get posted to cloud-based family trees as those on a forum, message board, or family genealogy website. The difference, though, is that when an error is corrected in a cloud-based system, the updated information is immediately synced and shared with everyone else who is subscribed to that information. In addition, it is much easier in a cloud-based system to identify others who share common ancestors or research interests. (For example, by marking my files as being publicly accessible and including in my online family tree information about my great-great-grandfather, Patrick Tormey, anyone else who is looking for information on Patrick Tormey will see not only that I have his birth, marriage and death information, but that I also have an abundant supply of original documents and other records about him. This alone has revolutionized how quickly genealogists can track down such information and connect with like-minded researchers.)
Exponentially Greater Access to Research Information
In addition to the greater ease of collaboration fostered by cloud-based computing, “the cloud” has created an exponentially larger pool of information that is accessible to researchers. A perfect example of this is Google Books. When Google announced in 2004 that it was beginning to scan historical books and had a goal of digitizing 15 million volumes within a decade, libraries and publishers alike gasped in disbelief. Today, less than a full decade later, it is apparent that Google’s original ambitions were conservative — as, by 2013, they now have some 30 million books available through Google Books. And with each passing year, the amount of historical publications available online is growing exponentially larger. Also positively impacting the genealogy community, when one person finds a rare historical book with valuable family information, that information is disseminated amongst his or her network of fellow researchers instantaneously (thanks to such tools as Ancesstry.com’s “hint” notification system, which is a perfect example of cloud based technology at work).
Protection from Loss
For years, I have been petrified about the impact of a potential home fire or other personal disaster. I am sure I am not alone in this worrisome thinking. After all, when you have been researching your family’s history for as long as I have (33 years now), the thought of losing three decades of hard work is heart breaking at best. Even without a fire, flood or tornado, the risk of loss of digital files is equally worrisome. I know several individuals, for example, who lost entire family trees when their computers failed and they were not able to recover information from damaged hard drives.
Cloud-based computing eliminates these risks of loss (whether loss by natural disaster or loss by computer failure). The reason for this is that, when using a cloud-based system such as Ancestry.com, your family tree and other records aren’t stored on your local computer. Rather, they are stored off-site on Ancestry’s servers and backed up in protected, redundant locations to protect against a larger disaster affecting Ancestry.
Of course, Ancestry.com’s cloud-based system is not the only way to backup your important records. You can (and should) back up your computer files to an external hard drive. In the event your primary PC fails, this will ensure your information is secure. It will not, however, protect you in the event of a fire or natural disaster. (It goes to reason that, if a fire destroys your home and all its contents, it will also destroy your external hard drive along with the PC.) In my humble opinion, therefore, offsite storage, such as is offered with a cloud-based system, is vitally important.
While on the subject of backing up important genealogy files, I will add, it’s a smart idea to print out paper copies of any information you store electronically. Some would argue that it is even smarter to provide a complete set of your printed records to a secure repository, such as those run by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS). In the event of some kind of future doomsday event (such as war), this would offer enhanced protection to files you have worked so hard to accumulate.
Potential Negatives to Consider
No discussion of the advantages of cloud-based computing would be objective or complete without also discussing the potential negatives.
Costs: For some, the cost of paying for cloud-based data storage and retrieval is an issue that needs to be considered. Personally, I estimate that I pay somewhere in the neighborhood of $500 per year for the various cloud-based subscriptions I have. And there is also the cost of the broadband wifi or cellular data transmission to be considered, depending on what type of devices one uses. Personally, I consider the benefits of cloud-based computing to be worth these costs; but this is something that each user has to determine on his or her own.
Loss of Privacy: Cloud-based computing, in and of itself, does not necessarily create a risk of loss of privacy. Many cloud-based services, however, such as Ancestry.com, offer users the choice of whether they want their family trees and other files to be public or private. There are some who, out of an abundance of caution, have elected to make their files private (fearing that someone might get access to information about their family or ancestors). Personally, I have given this issue a lot of thought, and I have come to the conclusion that the benefits of collaboration with other researchers far outweigh any potential loss of privacy I might experience by allowing my family tree files to be publicly accessible. Furthermore, I consider it important to memorialize and share my ancestors’ legacy with as many people as possible. To me, that pays ongoing tribute to my ancestors in a way I feel honors their legacy.
Vulnerability of Cloud Servers to Viruses and Hackers: Just as your own PC can be vulnerable to a virus or malicious hacker, cloud-based servers can also fall victim. It is important, therefore, to deal with a reputable provider that takes precautions against such risks and has redundant backups of all information. Being realistic about the risks posed by hackers and viruses, however, it is fair to say that you are much more likely to lose files due to a fire or because you didn’t back them up than than due to a remote, cloud-based service failing. So, in my opinion, if the goal is to manage risk, then using “the cloud” is clearly preferable to not using it.
Risk that a Service Provider Could Go Out of Business or Discontinue Certain Services: Cloud-based computing only exists as a result of advancements in technology; and the pace of change in technology is always increasing. More than technology itself, however, technology companies are constantly evolving, changing (not always for the better) and being displaced by competitors. Remember the likes of yesterday’s technology leaders, AOL, Netscape and Compuserve? If you care about preserving your genealogy files, you must consider the long-term viability of any service provider you use. Personally, this is one reason why I have decided to use Ancestry.com. They are a well-established and well-managed provider that has the ongoing financial resources to remain viable for many decades to come. (I know that many have griped about the subscription fees Ancestry.com charges — believing that they should offer their services for free or utilize an advertising-based revenue system — but it is these ongoing subscription fees that also contribute to the long-term strength and viability that I depend on them for. )
To be sure, there are pros and cons to cloud-computing (just as there are pros and cons with everything in life). There is no question, however, that “the cloud” has already revolutionized the field of genealogy. Looking forward, all evidence points to further growth of this technology and the benefits it offers — especially considering the growing number of users turning to cloud-based computing every year and the growing amount of research materials being being made available though such services as Google Books.
Of course, I can’t help but see the irony in this. Historians and genealogists look backwards and try to reconstruct and preserve the past; yet, today we are being helped by technology that I couldn’t have even imagined 33 years ago. It makes me optimistic about the prospects for even better genealogical research in the future; and I look forward to technology continuing to open even more doors to my family’s past.
Suggested format for citations of this article:
Tormey, Michael. “How Cloud Computing Has Revolutionized Genealogy”, “Michael Tormey’s ‘Legacy Blog'”, posted April 27, 2013, (http://legacy-blog.com: accessed [access date]).