The computer helper: Cloud computing (Feature)
By Jay Dougherty Dec 20, 2008, 1:08 GMT
Washington - What's the biggest headache you face when working with your computer? The answer may very well be 'the computer itself.' System crashes, data loss, hard drive failure - there's a never ending parade of problems. There's a new movement afoot in the tech industry that promises to take some of those headaches away, and it's called 'cloud computing.' By now, many people have heard that term being bandied about, but questions are rife regarding what cloud computing is and what it means to the future. Read on for some answers.
Q: What is cloud computing?
A: In essence, cloud computing refers to a model in which the applications you use and the files you save are stored on remote servers. You access those applications and files with your PC, over a network, and in many cases, that network is the Internet.
Cloud computing is actually not a new concept - it's an old one that's been made relevant again by the increasing availability of computer networks, particularly the Internet, and by the spread of 'always on' broadband connections.
Q: What are the advantages of cloud computing?
A: There are many. As a computer user, you would no longer be dependent on one particular computer to access and work on your data. So long as you have a connection to your data through a network - whether it's a local area network or the Internet - you can retrieve your files and pick up where you left off. That's becoming increasingly important today, as people crave more mobility and often use more than one computer in the course of a day.
You also wouldn't have to worry about maintaining your applications or your files, and your concerns over the health of your local hardware would be lessened. The safety of your data is less dependent upon the health of your computer's hardware in a cloud computing model: a hard drive crash in your notebook computer, for example, would simply send you looking for a new one instead of pulling you hair out in worry over whether you had forever lost that paper you'd been working on for weeks.
Your computer itself could become smaller and lighter if you're using it in a cloud computing environment. You would no longer need the investment in lots of local storage, and because much of the grunt work of running your applications would be borne by the network, you would not necessarily need the fastest processor or lots of memory. A smaller, lighter computer means less energy used as well. For companies, the energy savings alone can be tremendous.
New opportunities for collaboration present themselves with cloud computing, as well. Since files are stored remotely, and because with the right software they could be accessible by more than one person, it's possible to share your work with multiple authors.
For companies, cloud computing represents an opportunity to localise and secure the data that its employees create. In today's most prevalent computing model, employees carry around data on their notebooks, which are susceptible to all sorts of dangers and catastrophes. Cloud computing promises to change that.
Q: What are the downsides of cloud computing?
A: If you do not have consistent, reliable access to the network on which your applications and data reside, cloud computing will be uninteresting to you. And if the idea of having your data stored remotely and your applications off of your computer feels like giving up too much control, then cloud computing may not appeal to you at all. It's definitely a model that asks computer users to think differently, and it will take some time to get used to.
Beyond that, though, there are some significant concerns about data security in the world of cloud computing. Gobs of data stored offsite in large 'datacenters' represent an attractive target for hackers and others who see information as power. Companies need to feel secure about how their data is being protected.
Also, reliability is still a concern. If the network goes down - or if your connection to the network goes down - your data is inaccessible until the problem is fixed. Further, if there's a glitch or shutdown of the datacenter at which your applications and data reside, you're out of luck until the problem is fixed.
Also, while cloud computing would theoretically be greener from your vantage point, all that data and all those applications have to be stored somewhere, on machines that are always on and sucking huge amounts of energy.
Q: What are some examples of cloud computing applications?
A: You've probably been moving slowly toward a cloud computing environment for years without realizing it. If you have a Web-only e- mail account, for example, you're part of the cloud computing movement. Most Yahoo! Mail or Gmail users, for example, retrieve, read, and compose their e-mail online, over the Internet. Without the cloud, they have no access to either the e-mail application or the e- mail itself. Google Docs - with its very capable and free online word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation program - is an example of traditional office applications that operate in a cloud computing model. ThinkFree Office and Zoho are viable alternatives to Google Docs. And Microsoft has announced plans to make available its Office suite of productivity tools online, in a 'cloud' environment. Other application vendors - from popular financial application makers to game developers - are following suit.
Q: Can I buy a 'cloud computer'?
A: Yes. Today's netbooks are, in essence, cloud computers. Asus's Eee PC and Dell's Inspiron Mini are two examples of notebooks designed primarily with network connectivity in mind. Light on local storage, these first-generation 'cloud computers' point to a future in which the heavy lifting of data and application storage and management is done remotely.
--- Have a computer question? Send it to the Computer Helper at firstname.lastname@example.org.