What is Cloud Computing?
The ‘cloud’ is a real buzzword these days, but what exactly is the cloud, how does it impact what you do, and is it anything really new?
Cloud computing shares some similarities with an older model of computing called timesharing. A timesharing computer system connects multiple users to a single computer processor through dumb terminals, which have a keyboard and monitor, but leave the computing to the central machine.
In the simplest terms, cloud computing means storing and accessing data and programs over the Internet instead of your computer’s hard drive. The cloud is just a metaphor for the Internet. It goes back to the days of flowcharts and presentations that would represent the gigantic server-farm infrastructure of the Internet as nothing but a puffy, white cumulonimbus cloud, accepting connections and doling out information as it floats.
What cloud computing is not about is your hard drive. When you store data on–or run programs from the hard drive, that’s called local storage and computing. Everything you need is physically close to you, which means accessing your data is fast and easy (for that one computer, or others on the local network). Working off your hard drive is how the computer industry functioned for decades and some argue it’s still superior to cloud computing, for reasons I’ll explain shortly.
The cloud is also not about having a dedicated hardware server in residence. Storing data on a home or office network does not count as utilizing the cloud.
For it to be considered “cloud computing,” you need to access your data or your programs over the Internet, or at the very least, have that data synchronized with other information over the Net. In a big business, you may know all there is to know about what’s on the other side of the connection; as an individual user, you may never have any idea what kind of massive data-processing is happening on the other end. The end result is the same: with an online connection, cloud computing can be done anywhere, anytime.
Let’s be clear here. We’re talking about cloud computing as it impacts individual consumers—those of us who sit back at home or in small-to-medium offices and use the Internet on a regular basis.
There is an entirely different “cloud” when it comes to business. Some businesses choose to implement Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), where the business subscribes to an application it accesses over the Internet. (Think Salesforce.com.) There’s also Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS), where a business can create its own custom applications for use by all in the company. And don’t forget the mighty Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS), where players like Amazon, Google, and Rackspace provide a backbone that can be “rented out” by other companies. (Think Netflix providing services to you because it’s a customer of the cloud-services at Amazon.)
Of course, cloud computing is big business: McKinsey & Company, a global management consulting firm, claims that 80 percent of the large companies in North America that it’s surveyed are either looking at using cloud services—or already have. The market is on its way to generating $100 billion a year.
The lines between local computing and cloud computing sometimes get very, very blurry. That’s because the cloud is part of almost everything on our computers these days. You can easily have a local piece of software (for instance, Microsoft Office 365, one of the versions of Office 2013) that utilizes a form of cloud computing for storage (Microsoft SkyDrive in the case of Office). That said, Microsoft also offers a set of Web apps that are close versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote that you can access via your Web browser without installing anything.
Some other major examples of cloud computing you’re probably using:
This is a pure cloud computing service, with all the apps and storage found online. Drive is also available on more than just desktop computers; you can use it on tablets like the iPad $545.00 at Amazon or on smartphones. In fact, all of Google’s services could be considered cloud computing: Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Reader, Google Voice, and so on. Upgrade to Google Apps and you can use many of the above with your own domain name attached.
Apple’s cloud service is primarily used for online storage and synchronization of your mail, contacts, calendar, and more. All the data you need is available to you on your iOS, Mac OS, or Windows device. iCloud also stores media files.
Amazon Cloud Drive:
Storage at the big retailer is mainly for music, preferably MP3s that you purchase from Amazon.
Hybrid services like Box, Dropbox, and SugarSync all say they work in the cloud because they store a synched version of your files online, but most also sync those files with local storage. Synchronization to allow all your devices to access the same data is a cornerstone of the cloud computing experience, even if you do access the file locally. Likewise, it’s considered cloud computing if you have a community of people with separate devices that need the same data synched, be it for work collaboration projects or just to keep the family in sync. For a huge list of cloud-based Web apps, check out the Best Free Web Apps.
Right now, the primary example of a device that is completely cloud-centric is the Samsung Chromebook Series 3 $238.41 at Amazon, an inexpensive laptop (starting at $249) that has just enough local storage and power to let it run a Web browser, specifically Google Chrome. From there, most everything you do is online: apps, media, and storage are all in the cloud.
Of course, you may be wondering what happens if you’re somewhere without a connection and you need to access your data. This is currently one of the biggest complaints about devices like the Chromebook, although their offline functionality is expanding.
The Chromebook isn’t the first product to try this approach. So-called ‘dumb-terminals’ that lack local storage and connect to a local server or mainframe go back decades. The first Internet-only product attempts included the old NIC (New Internet Computer), the Netpliance iOpener, and the disastrous 3Com Audrey. You could argue they all debuted well before their time—after all, dial-up speeds of the 1990s had training wheels compared to the accelerated broadband Internet connections of today. That’s why many would argue that cloud computing works at all: the connection to the Internet is as fast as the connection to the hard drive.
Or is it?
In a recent edition of his feature “What if ?”, xkcd-cartoonist (and former NASA roboticist) Randall Monroe tried to answer the question of “When—if ever—will the bandwidth of the Internet surpass that of FedEx?” The question was posed because no matter how great your broadband connection, it’s still cheaper to send a package of hundreds of gigabytes of data via Fedex’s “sneakernet” of planes and trucks than it is to try and send it over the Internet. (The answer, Monroe concludes, is the year 2040.)
Cory Doctorow over at boingboing took Monroe’s answer as “an implicit critique of cloud computing.” To him, the speed and cost of local storage easily outstrips using a wide-area network connection controlled by a telecommunications company—your ISP.
That’s the rub. The ISPs, telcos, and media companies control your access. Putting all your faith in the cloud means you’re also putting all your faith in continued, unfettered access. You might get this level of access, but it’ll cost you. And it will continue to cost more and more as companies find ways to make you pay by doing things like metering your service, where the more bandwidth you use, the more it costs.
Maybe you trust those corporations. That’s fine, but there are plenty of other arguments against going into the cloud whole-hog. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak has decried cloud computing: “I think it’s going to be horrendous. I think there are going to be a lot of horrible problems in the next five years.” In part, that comes from the potential for crashes. When there are problems at a company like Amazon, which provides cloud storage services to big name companies like Netflix and Pinterest, it can take out all those services (as happened in the summer of 2012).
But mostly, Wozniak was worried about the intellectual property issues. Who owns the data you store online? Is it you or the company storing it? Consider how many times there’s been widespread controversy over the changing terms of service for companies like Facebook and Instagram—which are definitely cloud services—regarding what they get to do with your photos. Ownership is a relevant factor to be concerned about.
After all, there’s no central body governing use of the cloud for storage and services. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) is trying, having created an IEEE Cloud Computing Initiative in 2011 to establish standards for use, especially for the business sector. But otherwise, cloud-computing—like so much about the Internet—is a little bit like the Wild West, where the rules are made up as you go, and you hope for the best.
Let’s say you’re an executive at a large corporation. Your particular responsibilities include making sure that all of your employees have the right hardware and software they need to do their jobs. Buying computers for everyone isn’t enough — you also have to purchase software or software licenses to give employees the tools they require. Whenever you have a new hire, you have to buy more software or make sure your current software license allows another user. It’s so stressful that you find it difficult to go to sleep on your huge pile of money every night.
Soon, there may be an alternative for executives like you. Instead of installing a suite of software for each computer, you’d only have to load one application. That application would allow workers to log into a Web-based service which hosts all the programs the user would need for his or her job. Remote machines owned by another company would run everything from e-mail to word processing to complex data analysis programs. It’s called cloud computing, and it could change the entire computer industry.
In a cloud computing system, there’s a significant workload shift. Local computers no longer have to do all the heavy lifting when it comes to running applications. The network of computers that make up the cloud handles them instead. Hardware and software demands on the user’s side decrease. The only thing the user’s computer needs to be able to run is the cloud computing system’s interface software, which can be as simple as a Web browser, and the cloud’s network takes care of the rest.
There’s a good chance you’ve already used some form of cloud computing. If you have an e-mail account with a Web-based e-mail service like Hotmail, Yahoo! Mail or Gmail, then you’ve had some experience with cloud computing. Instead of running an e-mail program on your computer, you log in to a Web e-mail account remotely. The software and storage for your account doesn’t exist on your computer — it’s on the service’s computer cloud.
When talking about a cloud computing system, it’s helpful to divide it into two sections: the front end and the back end. They connect to each other through a network, usually the Internet. The front end is the side the computer user, or client, sees. The back end is the “cloud” section of the system.
The front end includes the client’s computer (or computer network) and the application required to access the cloud computing system. Not all cloud computing systems have the same user interface. Services like Web-based e-mail programs leverage existing Web browsers like Internet Explorer or Firefox. Other systems have unique applications that provide network access to clients.
On the back end of the system there are various computers, servers and data storage systems that create the “cloud” of computing services. In theory, a cloud computing system could include practically any computer program you can imagine, from data processing to video games. Usually, each application will have its own dedicated server.
A central server administers the system, monitoring traffic and client demands to ensure everything runs smoothly. It follows a set of rules called protocols and uses a special kind of software called middleware. Middleware allows networked computers to communicate with each other. Most of the time, servers don’t run at full capacity. That means there’s unused processing power going to waste. It’s possible to fool a physical server into thinking it’s actually multiple servers, each running with its own independent operating system. The technique is called server virtualization. By maximizing the output of individual servers, server virtualization reduces the need for more physical machines.
If a cloud computing company has a lot of clients, there’s likely to be a high demand for a lot of storage space. Some companies require hundreds of digital storage devices. Cloud computing systems need at least twice the number of storage devices it requires to keep all its clients’ information stored. That’s because these devices, like all computers, occasionally break down. A cloud computing system must make a copy of all its clients’ information and store it on other devices. The copies enable the central server to access backup machines to retrieve data that otherwise would be unreachable. Making copies of data as a backup is called redundancy.
The applications of cloud computing are practically limitless. With the right middleware, a cloud computing system could execute all the programs a normal computer could run. Potentially, everything from generic word processing software to customized computer programs designed for a specific company could work on a cloud computing system.
Why would anyone want to rely on another computer system to run programs and store data? Here are just a few reasons:
Clients would be able to access their applications and data from anywhere at any time. They could access the cloud computing system using any computer linked to the Internet. Data wouldn’t be confined to a hard drive on one user’s computer or even a corporation’s internal network.
It could bring hardware costs down. Cloud computing systems would reduce the need for advanced hardware on the client side. You wouldn’t need to buy the fastest computer with the most memory, because the cloud system would take care of those needs for you. Instead, you could buy an inexpensive computer terminal. The terminal could include a monitor, input devices like a keyboard and mouse and just enough processing power to run the middleware necessary to connect to the cloud system. You wouldn’t need a large hard drive because you’d store all your information on a remote computer.
Corporations that rely on computers have to make sure they have the right software in place to achieve goals. Cloud computing systems give these organizations company-wide access to computer applications. The companies don’t have to buy a set of software or software licenses for every employee. Instead, the company could pay a metered fee to a cloud computing company.
Servers and digital storage devices take up space. Some companies rent physical space to store servers and databases because they don’t have it available on site. Cloud computing gives these companies the option of storing data on someone else’s hardware, removing the need for physical space on the front end.
Corporations might save money on IT support. Streamlined hardware would, in theory, have fewer problems than a network of heterogeneous machines and operating systems.
If the cloud computing system’s back end is a grid computing system, then the client could take advantage of the entire network’s processing power. Often, scientists and researchers work with calculations so complex that it would take years for individual computers to complete them. On a grid computing system, the client could send the calculation to the cloud for processing. The cloud system would tap into the processing power of all available computers on the back end, significantly speeding up the calculation.
Perhaps the biggest concerns about cloud computing are security and privacy. The idea of handing over important data to another company worries some people. Corporate executives might hesitate to take advantage of a cloud computing system because they can’t keep their company’s information under lock and key.
The counterargument to this position is that the companies offering cloud computing services live and die by their reputations. It benefits these companies to have reliable security measures in place. Otherwise, the service would lose all its clients. It’s in their interest to employ the most advanced techniques to protect their clients’ data.
Privacy is another matter. If a client can log in from any location to access data and applications, it’s possible the client’s privacy could be compromised. Cloud computing companies will need to find ways to protect client privacy. One way is to use authentication techniques such as user names and passwords. Another is to employ an authorization format — each user can access only the data and applications relevant to his or her job.
Some questions regarding cloud computing are more philosophical. Does the user or company subscribing to the cloud computing service own the data? Does the cloud computing system, which provides the actual storage space, own it? Is it possible for a cloud computing company to deny a client access to that client’s data? Several companies, law firms and universities are debating these and other questions about the nature of cloud computing.
How will cloud computing affect other industries? There’s a growing concern in the IT industry about how cloud computing could impact the business of computer maintenance and repair. If companies switch to using streamlined computer systems, they’ll have fewer IT needs. Some industry experts believe that the need for IT jobs will migrate to the back end of the cloud computing system.