Author(s): Randall Gibson, Managing Principal – Diamond Head Associates Inc.
Appeared In : Innovations Newsletter, Vol 4, Diamond Head Associates
But what exactly is “the cloud”, and why should it matter to you?
First, the cloud is nothing new – it’s a catch-all term for Internet-based services, which have been around for the better part of the last two decades.
These services could range from simple file storage (e.g., backing up your data to a remote server via an Internet connection), to complete remote computing for business or operational applications (e.g., running business software or other applications on a remote computer via a web browser, rather than directly on your desktop PC). These applications could include simple word processing programs, customer relationship management, accounting, even enterprise critical applications such as warehouse management systems for tracking inventory and order processing for a distribution center.
Cloud resources include both file storage and remote execution of software applications. Each is offered on a pay-as-you-go basis, which often makes these services more affordable and therefore attractive to both consumers and businesses.
Recent advertising from companies like IBM, Microsoft and Salesforce.com would suggest the cloud is a new service. However, it’s simply smart rebranding of earlier terms such as “application service provider”, “software as a service”, and “on-demand software” which were not widely understood or adopted terms.
In fact, you’ve probably already been using cloud-based services for years without knowing it under that term; Amazon.com, eBay, Hotmail, and more recently Netflix, Facebook, MobileMe, and Google Docs are all “cloud based” services, where you are either storing information on their servers or using their remote application software. Even a “simple” Google search accesses billion-dollar computer networks and vast databases – all cloud-based resources.
Cloud based computing is now started to catch on in the past year or two, due to more widely available and improved services, and maybe in part due to the easier-to-remember “cloud” terminology. In any case, cloud computing is here to stay and may even completely replace the way you use and interact with computers in the future.
The basic idea behind cloud computing actually began over 25 years ago, when local area networks were first standardized and widely employed to connect individual computers and disk storage devices in an office or building. In a “networked environment” – as they were called then – you could access data and even programs on a computer down the hall via the local area network connection. This allowed key programs or applications to be centralized, as opposed to needing a copy on every desktop computer, and protected (users needed to be authorized to have access to the programs or data). Data files could be easily shared, protected, and backed up. The convenience of working in this networked environment lead to significant productivity gains. Cloud computing simply takes this one step further: instead of storing data or running a program on a computer you are connected to down the hall, it moves that to a remote location connected via the Internet – and this could be anywhere in the world!
Advantages of Cloud Computing
For consumers, cloud-computing offers real advantages in terms of convenience. You can create a document on the train ride to work on you smart phone or iPad, then open it on your desktop computer when you get to work (it’s been sent to and stored on the cloud, and synced on your other computing devices). A good example is Apple’s MobileMe service, which is a cloud-based storage and information syncing service for subscribers. Any changes you make to information (documents, contacts, calendar, etc.) on one device are automatically sent to one of their servers, stored there, and synced to your other (subscribed) devices within minutes. I personally use this service to synchronize data on my phone, iPad, and three computers; no more manual synchronizing – and trying to figure out which is the most recent update – of important data!
For businesses, cloud computing offers cost and scalability advantages. It replaces existing applications or computing needs with a more incremental cost approach: you pay for the service on an as-needed basis, as opposed to investing in expensive enterprise software applications and data storage equipment up front. You can buy as little or as much as you need, when you need it. This is especially attractive to small or start-up companies – enterprise resource applications and equipment can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to purchase or license, and require an entire IT department to maintain.
Server Farms: Growing and Harvesting Data
A “server farm” is the heart of cloud computing, and conjures up interesting images: a field (actually, a large room) of computers (servers). When you access a cloud service or cloud-based file storage, the request is sent to a specific computer (or set of computers) at one of these facilities to execute. And what if your application is very compute intensive? For many such programs that can use multiple cpu’s to simultaneously work on data in parallel, server farms allow you access to dozens, even hundreds, of server computers at once – computer resources which you would likely not have in house.
Cloud computing has spawned a whole new business – building and running these facilities.
Security remains the primary concern, since data is no longer under your control as it moves to servers that live who-knows-where that are managed by who-knows-who. For highly sensitive data, local storage and control remains a preferred alternative for many organizations, which believe they can better protect the data from hackers behind their own network firewalls. And for mission-critical applications, such as running factory floor scheduling or processing today’s orders at an automated distribution center, losing access to cloud-based applications and data due to temporary outages of their Internet connection is not an option.
The Cloud: The Future of Computing?
“Cloud power will change the way you do business” proclaims Microsoft in recent advertisements.
“15 ways the cloud will change our lives” was the topic of a recent article in the Wall Street Journal’s Digital Life section.
Almost daily we are being bombarded with articles and advertisements with similar themes. If last year’s bidding wars for cloud storage and service provider companies is an indicator, we should expect to see vastly more emphasis on cloud computing from established tech and telecom firms such as Dell, HP, and Verizon. Even Apple is planning moving your iTunes library (or, at least giving you the choice) from your computer to their MobileMe cloud servers, so you can access them from any location on any computer or iPod type device.
For businesses, cloud computing is already changing the way they operate, and I’ve no doubt that the trend will continue and accelerate. Given the reliability and speed of Internet connections, it just makes a lot of sense to push data and software off of local computers and onto remote servers “in the cloud”, where we gain the benefits of pay-as-needed, easy and quick scalability. Let the server farm providers worry about investing in and maintaining current computing machines, hiring and managing the IT staff needed to keep things running smoothly, and managing software upgrades. And what about compute intensive problems, like we see in business analytics? Need the power of 10,000 CPUs to solve a problem in minutes instead of running it on your local network computers for days or weeks? No problem!
For consumers, the picture is maybe more cloudy….. A bewildering variety of new cloud and mobile services are going to be offered, from “killer app” 3D games, to smart monitoring and reporting of you home appliances, to personalized shopping advice from your favorite retailers. I can see the advantages of storing and syncing my personal data files, entertainment media libraries, and working documents on cloud services, where they’ll be available to me no matter where I happen to be. But just because all these other uses and services might be feasible, might be available, doesn’t mean I really need them.