We (Chris and Jim of Geeks on Tour) are currently in Colorado Springs at the RVSEF Lifestyle, Education, and Safety Conference. We are presenting two seminars today for the RVers in attendance. The first one is on Cloud computing and how we take advantage of it in our Fulltime RVing lifestyle. We thought our online RV.net readers might want to come along for the ride!
The ‘Cloud’ is simply The Internet – but it is taking on special meaning as Apple, Google, Microsoft, and others are offering accounts where you can have your own slice of the sky. They also offer device independence. If you can start a document with your computer, finish it on your tablet, and view it on your smartphone, you’re using Cloud Computing. With names like DropBox, Google Drive, iCloud, or SkyDrive, it no longer matters what device you have in your hand because the application, and the content is in the Cloud.
The Cloud is the Internet
So, where is this cloud? And who owns it? Remember … the ‘Cloud’ is simply a synonym for the Internet. The Internet is made up of thousands, maybe millions of Server computers, connected by millions of miles of cables, and thousands of routers. It’s all linked together with an agreed upon system, an Internet Protocol. Nobody owns the whole thing, although Google, Microsoft, and Apple do own some pretty large chunks. It is the mother network of networks, it is vast and it is complex, so we need a simple analogy to describe it. Pretend that the Internet is in the sky rather than in computers here on earth, and the term ‘Cloud’ fits nicely. It also helps with terms like UPload and DOWNload. UPload means taking something on your computer and sending it UP to the Internet … to the Cloud. DOWNload means taking something that is on the Internet (in the Cloud) and bringing it DOWN to your computer.
Cloud Computing is using Computer Services from the Cloud Instead of your Computer
‘Cloud Computing’ means using Cloud-based services to store your stuff, rather than your own computer or hard drives. For example, you can store all your spreadsheets in the Cloud and access them from wherever you are. Cloud Computing also means using Cloud-based services for your software instead of buying boxed software. For example, you can use Word, Excel, and Powerpoint on Microsoft SkyDrive rather than buying Microsoft Office for your computer. Most travelers we know don’t have a whole lot of need for Excel anymore, but occasionally, you need to make a spreadsheet, or read one that someone else sends you. Using SkyDrive, you can do that without paying for any software.
I could argue that I’ve been using Cloud Computing since the early 90s when I used CompuServe for communicating with friends on the Internet, or definitely since 2003 when I started using Blogger.com to post to my website – my blog. But we didn’t call it Cloud Computing then, we called it Web-Based software. The term Cloud Computing is taking hold because of services like Microsoft’s SkyDrive. Using SkyDrive, you can create and store Word documents or Excel spreadsheets. All you need is some device (computer, tablet, or smartphone) to access your SkyDrive account. It’s like having a virtual computer in the sky with your name on it. Some people think that the Cloud has something to do with Apple because they call their service iCloud, but no, Cloud Computing is a generic term.
What if you Don’t always Have an Internet Connection? Synchronize!
Having a good, high-speed Internet connection is taken for granted in modern American households, but for those of us who live in an RV – we don’t take anything for granted! That’s why we love the synchronizing (sync) feature. Using Dropbox as an example, it not only stores your stuff in the cloud, but it synchronizes with a folder on your computer whenever your computer is connected to the Internet.
For example, we plan our travels using Microsoft Streets and Trips, we create a file called geektravels.est. Let’s say that I created the travel plan and Jim says he wants to make some changes. Before Dropbox, we had 2 choices:
- Jim could use my computer to make his changes, or,
- I would copy the geektravels.est file to a USB drive and give to him for his computer. Now we have two files, one with my version of our travels and one with his – what a mess.
Now, we each have a Travels folder that has been set up with Dropbox and shared. Whenever I make a change to our travel plans, I save it to my local copy. Dropbox automatically notices the change and synchronizes it with the Cloud copy, AND, it also synchronizes the Cloud copy with the copy on Jim’s computer. The next time either of us looks at the geektravels.est files, we will be looking at the current version even without a current Internet connection. We are working with a local file, Dropbox takes care of making sure that both my local file and Jim’s local file are the same. This has made our lives so much easier.
Comparison of Major Cloud-Computing Services
|$ for more||$10/yr for 20 GB||2.49/mo for 25 GB||9.99/mo for 100 GB, but you can earn more free space||$20/yr for 10 GB|
|Sync Method||Download SkyDrive desktop app for Windows or Mac||Download Google Drive for your PC or Mac||Download Dropbox for Windows, Mac, or Linux||Download iCloud for Macintosh, Windows, or AppleTV|
|Web Apps Included||Word, Excel, Powerpoint, One Note, Excel Survey||Google Docs: Docs, Sheets, Slides, Form, Drawing||None (3d Party apps available)||iOffice: Pages, Numbers, Keynote|
|Mobile platforms||Windows Phone, iPhone, iPad, Android||Android, iPhone, iPad,||Android, iPhone, iPad, Blackberry, Kindle Fire||iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch,|
|Sharing with others||Easy, including sharing with groups||Easy||Easy, you can even just right click a file and share via a URL||Not so easy, iCloud is designed to synchronize all of your Apple devices|
|More Info||SkyDrive Support||Overview of Google Drive||Dropbox Help||iCloud Features|
This article is meant to introduce you to the concept of Cloud Computing, any specifics about how these programs work is likely to change on a daily basis! Jim and I, at Geeks on Tour, use Dropbox constantly to keep all our shared files synchronized. We would be lost without it now. We’ve also used Google Docs (which is now Google Drive) for a few years as a way to create and share online documents and spreadsheets.
If we were to start today and pick just one service, it would likely be SkyDrive … it has the most complete set of capabilities, the most free storage space, and it’s integrated with Windows 8. We also like the Group sharing feature. If you use any of these Cloud Computing services, we welcome your comments.
Long before we took to the road in our RV, we had a computer training center in Fort Lauderdale, Florida called Computer Savvy. We were a Microsoft Authorized Training Center and one of the classes was Mappoint. Mappoint was a very expensive mapping, routing, and demographics database program. As an authorized training center we had our own copies of all the software, including Mappoint. So, after we sold the training center and became RVers – we figured we’d give Mappoint a try for planning and navigating our travels. Mappoint’s inexpensive little brother is called Streets and Trips. We installed it on our laptop, bought the USB GPS receiver for it and found a place to mount the laptop in the cab of our 30 foot Class C motorhome. That was our sole mapping and navigation program for our first few years on the road – 2003-6.
Here’s the very first video we made about MS Streets and Trips.
Then came the Garmin dashboard GPS, the Rand McNally, and Google Maps on our Android smartphones. Streets and Trips had to take a backseat while we played with all these new toys. But, we still used Streets and Trips when we had time to sit at our computers and dream about our future plans. There’s a lot of good things to be said about all of those while you’re driving and want voice-directed turn by turn directions, but nothing beats Streets and Trips for the planning part. Now, with our new MS Surface Tablet that can run Streets and Trips, we may even start navigating with it again.
Planning a Summer’s Travels
We plan our entire summer. The specifics will change many times, but we like having an idea of the long term plan. This year we’re leaving Florida and going to Gillette, Wyoming. In S&T I entered a starting point of Fort Lauderdale, Florida – an end point of Gillette, Wyoming and route options that we only drive about 4 hours/day. It plots a course and shows me with a little moon icon where we’ll need to stop. Now comes the fun part – finding places where we want to stay.
I love the little moons that indicate the general area we should get to at the end of each day. That gives me a starting location to look for places to stay. Thousands of places are built in to the software and you can see them by zooming in to a place and finding nearby places, like campgrounds. But, there are some campgrounds that I will go out of my way for, so I like to see them on the big picture. Thousand Trails is one of those. We have a membership and have paid for the year regardless of how often we stay at a Thousand Trails park. Like a gym membership, it’s more valuable the more you use it, so we want to use it at every possible chance.
The POI Megafile
A special file that you can download for S&T is called the POI Megafile. POI stands for Points of Interest, and this megafile combines hundreds of sets of them, including Thousand Trails. Once I open the POI Megafile and find the Thousand Trails pushpin set, I can set it to be visible and I will see the Thousand Trails logo at any place on the map where a TT park exists. Another set I like is Elks Lodges with RV parking – we joined Elks a few years ago and enjoy using their RV parking amenities. Then there are specialty points of interest like waterfalls and hot springs – two of our favorite things where we like to stop.
Sharing your S&T File with Dropbox
One problem with Streets and Trips has been solved by the Cloud Computing system called Dropbox. You see, Streets and Trips is a regular old computer program that creates a file for your work. So, if Jim created our summer travel plans and I wanted to look at it, I would have to go to his computer. Or, I would ask him to give me the file on a thumb drive so I could look at in on my computer. And, if I made any changes, I would need to re-save it to the thumb drive and give it back to him – making sure he updated his computer file with my new file. That just didn’t work.
Enter Dropbox. When you sign up for a Dropbox.com account, it creates a folder on your computer called Dropbox. This is a magic folder! Jim now saves the SummerTravelPlan.est file in his Dropbox folder and ‘shares’ it with me. I have also installed dropbox so I have the magic folder also. Whenever we are connected to the Internet (most of the time) Dropbox will check our shared dropbox files and make sure they are synchronized. It goes like this: Jim adds a stop to our summer plan on Streets and Trips, saves and closes the file. Dropbox notices that the file has been updated and uploads the trip file to the Cloud and, since it is shared with me, it also downloads the new file to my computer’s dropbox folder. Next time I open up our summer plan, I am seeing the latest file that Jim worked on. Now I make a change and the process continues in reverse. My dropbox notices my change and synchronizes up to the cloud and down to Jim’s computer. It’s our own private network.
Learn to Use Streets and Trips
On our Geeks on Tour Learning Library, there are 13 video lessons on how to use Streets and Trips, about an hour and a half. The first 3 are free for anyone to watch, the rest require a Geeks on Tour membership.
How I Exceed My 5 Gigabyte Limit with Verizon
Our contract allows 5 Gigabytes of data usage per month. Check the image at right and you’ll see that we’ve used over 4 Gigabytes and we’re only on day 8 of 31! Looks like I’ll have to go on a data diet for the rest of the month.
What’s a Gigabyte?
Data usage is simply Internet use as opposed to voice. Voice plan usage from your cellular provider is measured in minutes, Internet/Data usage is measured in Megabytes/Gigabytes. Data usage is also referred to as Downloading, Uploading, or Bandwidth. Think of it like a stream of water going thru a hose, email and other text is just a trickle, video is a firehose. You’re measured by how much data is going thru the connection – what you’re looking at, not the time you’re online.
Each Gigabyte is roughly 1,000 Megabytes. We teach people that 5 Gigabytes is usually plenty for a month of one person doing normal browsing, email reading and maybe some Youtube watching. But, if you share that connection with multiple computers, or you watch a lot of video, then 5 Gigabytes won’t be nearly enough.
Just to give you an idea, a large, high resolution picture that you view on the web may consume about 1 Megabyte. You’d have to view 1,000 of those pictures to hit one Gigabyte of usage. Over the period of one month, you might view 1,000 pictures on the web. Watching a typical, standard quality, 3-4 minute Youtube video will use roughly 10 Megabytes. So you could watch 100 of those for 1 Gigabyte of data usage. See this article from the folks at evdoinfo.com for a chart: What does 5GB (Gigabytes) Get Me? Here’s another article for more detailed info on data usage for videos. The only thing we tell people they cannot do is to watch full length movies. Watching one Netflix movie online can use up to 2 Gigabytes of your allotment right there.
How Did We Go Over Our Limit?
We had not watched any online movies, so how did we rack up so much data usage so fast? First of all, for the whole winter season, we were in one RV park where we contracted with Bell South for a DSL line. DSL is nice and fast and has no limits. So, we got spoiled. We didn’t have to pay attention to data usage all winter. Now that we’re back on the road, we need to be paying attention. Both Jim and I are sharing our mobile hotspot Internet connection from Verizon.
Once I got a notice from Verizon, I did some checking. One culprit is my Windows Updates. I had automatically received Windows 7 Service Pack 1. I checked Microsoft’s site and learned that it was over 1 Gigabyte in size! We are also preparing to deliver a seminar remotely using Skype and screen-sharing. Our practice session probably cost us us a 1/4 Gigabyte. A couple days ago, I purchased the latest Microsoft Streets and Trips program and downloaded it. That was 1.3 Gigabytes! Pretty stupid on my part since I already had the trial version installed on my computer. We now have a 4G mobile hotspot from Verizon and we were so excited to be in a 4G area around Nashville … I may have watched a couple episodes of Glee on Hulu because it worked so well … hey, I call that research!
What Can You Do to Limit Your Data Usage?
We need to go on a data diet! Here are the things that we are going to do:
Always check for good Wi-Fi and use it when possible.
Stay aware of our current data usage by checking our account stats online at verizonwireless.com/myverizon and logging into our account. If you don’t know how to do that for your provider, give them a call and ask.
Turn off automatic Windows Updates (Control Panel\System and Security\Windows Update) note: if you do this, make sure to do your updates manually whenever you’re in a good Wi-Fi area. Getting updates *is* very important.
Turn off DropBox. DropBox is a great utility that synchronizes a folder of data across multiple computers. It does this by uploading them to a website and then downloading them to the other computers, so it uses double bandwidth (data transfer usage) going up and down! If I remember, I’ll turn it back on when I’m connected to a good Wi-Fi signal.
Stay away from Netflix and Hulu
Limit our Video Skype calls.
How Much Does it Cost When you go Over Your Allotment?
Verizon used to charge 25 cents per Megabyte of overage. That adds up quick! If you went over by a Gigabyte, that would cost $250! The fees today are much more reasonable – each Gigabyte of excess will be charged at $10/Gigabyte. Check with your provider and your contract to see what your overage charges are. If you’ve had your contract for a long time, you may even have an unlimited usage contract. If that’s the case … don’t lose it! Any change in your contract may get you started with a whole new contract – with new limitations. The unlimited usage contracts are highly desirable.
Can I Increase My Limits?
This depends on your provider and the plans they offer. Verizon does currently offer a 10Gigabyte contract for $80/month. We might just have to do that.
Kind of like those real diets … so often I give up and go buy some clothes in a larger size!
by Chris Guld, Geeks on Tour
Geeks on Tour is a membership website with hundreds of Tutorial Videos on topics of interest to travelers, such as managing digital photos with Picasa, Route-Planning with Streets and Trips, and sharing your travels with a website using Blogger. Members can view all of the videos in the Learning Library.