Everyone these days is talking about cloud computing. Some think-tanks are also calling this the future of computing. There is a lot of marketing hype and confusion regarding what it really is. As with any new hot technology, one really has to understand the benefit and limitations before jumping onto that wagon.
Let me start with a very condensed history of computing and data storage. IBM and DEC (bought by HP), pioneered centralized computing paradigm in their Mainframe offerings in the 70s. All data and applications resided in one place, in a large building. If you wanted to access your data, you would hook into a dumb terminal physically connected to that building. In the 80s, the first personal computer became available. Everyone bought one, and saved their documents within that PC’s hard disk. Your data is still tied to that hard drive within that PC. In early 90s, the internet took off. It enabled connecting those individual computers on a large integrated network to share data or files. The World Wide Web was born. Your data still resided on a single PC or on a single device. However, you could access it from anywhere in the world over a data connection, using a device called – Modem. This was a great time for the client-server computing model. Then in year 2000, the internet super highway was born. It created a very high speed Internet backbone across the US and extended to other continents using under-sea Fiber Optics cable. This laid the foundation for cloud computing.
Cloud computing means different things to different user groups. For corporations, it means, moving their data and applications from their own buildings, data centers to a third party data center. Instead of buying their own server, network equipment, power, space, software and storage, the company leases a virtual computing environment from this third party. The company would access their application and data seamlessly, using a very high bandwidth Network connection to the third party data center. Virtualization plays another key role in Cloud computing. I will go into that a bit more in detail later on.
For individuals, we have been using cloud computing for quite some time without knowing it! Yahoo mail, Gmail, Hotmail, Google Docs – these are all examples of Cloud based services. Essentially, it allows individuals to save their data somewhere in the “Cloud” as opposed to their local computer at home. It also allows one to access the same data from anywhere in the world using a Web Browser. More recently, we now have services like DropBox, and Apple’s iCloud storage which allows you to store your data in the cloud and fully accessible on a number of devices with an internet connection.
One thing to note is that, when we save our email or Google Docs file, as a user, we are not really concerned as to where that data or file went. As long as my file is there the next time I login, I really do not care how Google decided to save my file and in what physical device, or in what State, City or data center. Essentially, the ‘Cloud’ freed the data from being tied down to one location or computing device. Your data is now truly mobile!
So, what makes up the ‘Cloud’?
The key components of Cloud are Virtualized server farm, virtualized storage and high bandwidth internet connections. Today’s virtualization software products allow housing of multiple ‘server like entities’ on a single computer. To a client, the virtualized server acts just like any physical server. Typically there is more than one data center housing these servers and data is always being replicated from one to the other. This allows load balancing and also failover. Virtualization technology also allows massive scalability in a very short time to support demand or growth in user base. Most cloud service companies have multiple data centers across the country with massive server and storage farm with redundant high speed Internet links. Essentially, they are very resilient by design. When we check our online email account, we are essentially connecting to one of these virtual servers somewhere in the US. When you save your Apple iTunes Music files in iCloud, the file is getting shipped across the country and saved in one or two large storage farms housed in a data center.
So, is the Cloud service right for personal use?
It depends on a lot of factors, including the type of data, access method, network connection speed, security concerns. For most people, free email access from Yahoo, Google, etc. has been a no brainer. The services are secure, we can store a few gig of email on the cloud and its always accessible. It is definitely the better way compared to the alternative of managing your own email server or maintaining email archive data.
A lot of folks prefer to save their family photos, videos, etc. on services like Picasa Web, ShutterFly, SnapFish, Flickr. , and now Apple’s iCloud. This allows them to share the data with other family members living in distant parts of the world. This is about personal preference. However, be aware of the fine prints. Some of these services may reserve the right to use your own photos for their commercial benefit. If someone is concerned about privacy, then placing photos on these services is probably not a good idea. These companies are always coming up with ways to ‘mine’ the data they house. A most recent example of this is the Face recognition technology that was used in Facebook. Obviously, for Muslim women practicing Purdah, this can become a problem.
For online music content, Apple’s iCloud service is actually very convenient. Store once and access on many devices. It can’t get any simpler than that! For non-Apple devices, just keep in mind that all services require that you are not sharing or saving music files that violate Intellectual property or DRM license.
In general, whenever accessing the Cloud services, ensure that you are running secure logins typically marked by https:// on the browser. Choose longer passwords and change them regularly.
The future for Cloud computing is quite sunny! It seems to be the natural next evolutionary step towards making computing power available to the general mass and connect everyone in the world. Gone are the days when an expensive computer was needed to stay connected. With the cloud, information can be shared very inexpensively with high reliability and reach all corners of the earth via a myriad of affordable mobile devices. Call it a hype or not, but this trend is going to stay for a while.