Clouds are in the news. Not the puffy white ones in the sky, but the techie kind that occasionally leak personal data or rain down nude celebrity photos when hackers attack.

Do you know the difference? No need to be embarrassed if you don't. The cloud is a pretty vague concept for a lot of people, even if they won't admit it. Consider it part of the ever-changing technology universe we use daily but don't really understand.

"The cloud is just, it's like God," said Tim Harmston, a comedian. "Everyone has their own image of what it, or he or she, would look like."

To try to clear things up, we asked some local notables to air their cloud fantasies. Then Jim Wolford, CEO of Atomic Data, a private cloud business based in Minneapolis, brought us back to reality on the ground.

What is the cloud? "I think of the cloud as a kind of Monty Python cloud. It's got naked women in it, and mechanical arms that can reach out and manipulate things on Earth. The voice of God emanates from it every now and then. There's farting," said poet Todd Boss.

Reality: It's a network of servers that provide storage space and computing power — on the Internet instead of your computer or smartphone. "The cloud is simply remote data centers," Wolford said. "It's still physically running on a computer somewhere."

How big is the cloud? "Bigger than a bread box. But no, I think it's small," said Dan Cole, KFAN's Common Man. "It has to fit inside a cellphone, so it must be small."

Reality: Clouds can fill warehouses the size of multiple football fields. When Google and other big companies build their own data centers, also known as server farms, they tend to be in rural areas. For instance, Facebook has data centers in Altoona, Iowa; Prineville, Ore.; Forest City, N.C.; and Lulea, Sweden. "They're massive," Wolford said.

Why do people use the cloud? "I would say the cloud is like the modern-day shoe box under the bed where you keep your naughty little notes and naughty pictures," said Mike Lester, a comedian. "It's a way to organize your stuff and keep everything together, all your weird stuff in one place."

Reality: Storage, yes, but for all sorts of things. An advantage of the cloud is that information stored there is accessible from multiple devices. When you store photos on Flickr, use Google Docs, watch movies on Netflix or transfer files with Dropbox, you're using the cloud.

Where is the cloud? "Where is eBay? Where is Facebook? The cloud is the same place you find Fancy Ray," said comedian Fancy Ray McCloney.

Reality: That depends on where tech companies have their data centers, which are scattered around the world, from Singapore to Oregon to Sweden.

So, there's more than one cloud? "It's a cumulonimbus style cloud. I think it's one cloud, probably with some divisions," said Tim Niver, co-owner of the Strip Club Meat & Fish.

Reality: Apple's iCloud might be the best-known cloud, thanks to the name, but it's not the only one. Each cloud-based Internet service you use tucks your data into their own storage space.

How does information get to the cloud? "It gets there through signals. Not smoke signals. It just gets there through signals and I'm sure there are satellites heavily involved in this process at some point," said Kieran Folliard, a former pub owner and whiskey entrepreneur.

Reality: No magic necessary. Data travel to the cloud over the Internet.

What does the cloud look like? "I imagine that it's all white and there's lots of texture, cloud texture, lots of rugs and everything is shiny," said fashion designer Christopher Straub. "It's like a mailroom, but it's high-end."

Reality: Not ethereal at all. The cloud lives in data centers, often big warehouses filled with racks upon racks of servers, which look a bit like big refrigerators, connected by miles of fiber-optic cables.

Why is it called the cloud? "It was just a good idea to use it as a metaphor," said Julia Cobb, of the "Lori & Julia" show on MyTalk 107.1. "It's somewhere above. It visually kind of works."

Reality: The name, which many people associate with the Apple-branded iCloud, has been around for decades on computer network plans. On the schematic drawings of these networks, the point at which information left the local network was marked with an arrow pointing to a cloud icon. "It came from technical diagrams," Wolford said. "A little puffy cloud is a representation in the technical world of the unknown, the big open world out there, getting to another network."

Katie Humphrey • 612-673-4758