With sometimes what seems to be breakneck speed things change in technology with old concepts being thrown to the curb and new ones rushing in to fill the void. Along with those new technologies come all the buzzwords used by marketing departments or folks looking to sound cool as they spout the hot new terms in water cooler meetings. One of the biggest buzzwords to start making the rounds has to be cloud computing.
Along with hot topics like social media or social networking the concept of cloud computing is so relatively new that people still have a hard time figuring out what it all encompasses. For some it is strictly the idea of being able to store files and data on some remote network using the Internet as the transfer vehicle. Then for others it is being able to use remotely hosted software in your local browser rather than having to own and install that software locally.
As well even the providers of cloud computing services appear to have different ideas of what cloud computing consists of. Whether it be Amazon with their EC2/S3 services to the newly announced Microsoft Mesh Live services and a whole bunch of other providers thrown in with their own ideas it can make for a difficult terrain to wade your way through as a user.
So what is it?
Like most buzzword technologies cloud computing is often aligned with things like grid computing, software as a service and utility computing so trying to tie down exactly what is meant by the term cloud computing can be difficult. Tech’s Bottom Line blogger Bill Snyder provides us with a definition from the Forrester Research published report on cloud computing by James Slaten’s explanation
“A pool of abstracted, highly scalable, and managed compute infrastructure capable of hosting end-customer applications and billed by consumption.”
Yup … that is the typical analyst techno-babble but Bill himself gives an easier to understand explanation
For many, it simply means “something done outside my walls.” What it means in practice is a collection of resources — applications, platforms, raw computing power and storage, and managed services (like antivirus detection) — delivered over the Internet.
So what it all boils down to is that cloud computing is nothing more than being able to access files, data, programs and 3rd party services via the internet that are being hosted by a 3rd party provider. This includes being able to both push files or data to the cloud as well as pull them from it. It also means that there is depending on the service being provided via these data centers (clouds) some way to synchronize your data and files between whatever machines have access to the cloud account.
Who’s the big players?
At this point and depending on how you interpret what cloud computing is there are three major players that are of concern to the average user. While there are more options for the corporate market; with more joining the marketplace everyday, for the majority in the consumer and web start-ups there really is only three worth going into detail at this point.
Amazon Web Services
Amazon has been the forerunner in many ways with cloud computing and in the process has become the darling of a very large majority; if not all, web services start-ups. Through its Web Services Amazon offers two ways to utilize their clouds with the first being Amazon Elastic Compute otherwise known as EC2. Through this service customers can effectively create virtual computers on which they can run their software. The advantage here is that EC2 customers can create, launch virtual server computers on the fly as they are needed and then stop them when they are no longer needed.
The second and the most popular among web start-ups is the Amazon S3 (Simple Storage Service) which is basically an online storage for files and data. A number of the new backup services that have entered the consumer market utilize this S3 service from Amazon. The S3 service is also being used for web hosting and image hosting service.
Another service that Amazon has brought online recently is their SimpleDB which is made to work in conjunction with the other two services as well as on its own. The basic idea though is to provide access to an easy to use scalable database through simple API calls and then only pay for what they use.
While most in the consumer marketplace will not directly use these services from Amazon they will end up using 3rd party web services or desktop services that will utilize one or all of these services from Amazon.
Google – Google Apps & Google App Engine
While some might say that Google Apps aren’t cloud computing in the same manner as other services I would suggest that the service is what cloud computing will come to mean to the average user.
With Google Apps you have the choice of using the free package but you have to put up with Google display ads where they want to; or you can pick one of the premier packs which will give you more storage space as well as no advertising.
While it wasn’t being called Google Apps back in February 2006 when Google introduced Gmail For Your Domain it wasn’t long before they rolled out what did become known as Google Apps. To date the following web applications make up Google Apps:
- Google Talk (or Gtalk)
- Google Calendar
- Google Docs
- Real-time collaboration
- Start Page – also became known as iGoogle
- Google Sites
Google Apps has enjoyed a growing adoptions of their services over the last year or so especially among the increasing number of people who work on the web. While the features of the applications may not be as feature rich or be ready for serious intensive usage many people are more than happy to use them rather than pay for expensive desktop versions of the software.
Then this year Google went one step further into the cloud when they began offering access to their Google App Engine beta platform. This platform allows users to create databases and manage it via their current Google account. This new service is meant to compete directly with Amazon’s Web Services and will primarily be used by web developers and 3rd party companies providing services to end users.
While the Live Mesh platform was only just announced and is only available as a technical preview to a limited number of beta testers it can’t be ignored as a future contender in the cloud computing sector as there is just too much money involved; not to mention reputation.
Many people have gotten distracted by the current limitations of the Technical Preview release of Live Mesh which only allows for the transferring of files to and from the cloud. Detractors readily point out that there are already a ton of companies that are providing the same service as is Microsoft with FolderShare. As good a press as this might make this is only a small part of what is planned for Mesh.
The big difference especially from a Microsoft perspective is that this initiative will be cross platform with support for the Mac as well as mobile devices an is intended to let you synchronize your data to and from whatever device you want to. The idea is that the users shouldn’t to care what device they are on or where they are – their data should always be accessible.
Not much more can really be said about Live Mesh at this point because it would only be conjecture on everyone’s part but I think that if Microsoft with Ray Ozzie at the helm of the project does manage to pull this off Microsoft could once more be back in the game as a major force in our new web based world.
Access & Security
Accessing the cloud
For all the talk about cloud computing becoming a persuasive force it relies on one very simple thing – ubiquitous global broadband access. Without this global access for everyone regardless of their economic place in society this move to the cloud on a large scale could end up widening the technological divide that already exists.
Security – User Peace of Mind
This is the one area of cloud computing that really worries me. Right now we have some control over what happens to our personal data as long as it remains our machines. Granted we still have to be careful and protect against things like viruses, malware and other attempts to steal our data. What happens though when we have to rely on a third party to do that?
There isn’t a day that goes by when we don’t here of either some hacker breaking into corporation’s systems and stealing sometime millions of peoples data; or there is also the specter of employees who decide that they want to get back at the company and steal the data.
I realize that a lot of people; especially among the younger generation who has grown up on the web, aren’t that concerned with it happening to the point that they almost have a lackadaisical viewpoint about it happening. That is all well and fine – until they have to try and resurrect their credit or other damage done by some-one who has stolen their data.
As exciting as something like cloud computing might be it isn’t something that I would be willing to jump into with both feet until you as the user have fully satisfied yourself that your data is truly going to be safe. I am still not satisfied and have a lot of questions regarding this.
I think that if we can overcome any possibilities of widening the technological divide that is developing and we can rest peacefully knowing our data is really safe then and only then do I believe that cloud computing can make a real difference. This is a space that I am very interested in; especially Microsoft’s moves into it, and one I will be watching to see what develops.
It could be a fun ride.
Hey, like this post? Why not share it with a buddy?