Cloud computing has been an increasingly hot topic over the past few months. Services like Dropbox, Amazon Cloud Drive and Google Docs are seeing more and more use, and Apple is getting in on it too, announcing iCloud as one of the signature features of the iPhone 4s. Despite all of the up and coming cloud storage and applications, plenty of people are still confused about what cloud computing is. And it’s really not much of a surprise that they are, because cloud computing isn’t something new, it’s just the maturation of something old that we’re all completely familiar with. The confusion is coming from all of us trying to wrap our heads around this new, incredible leap in technology when we’ve all been using it for years already.
So, what exactly is cloud computing? Well at its simplest, it’s just the use of a remote computer for applications or storage, rather than a local computer. Instead of having the laptop in front of you run an application like Microsoft Word, you have Google’s servers run GoogleDocs. Then you save your documents to Google’s servers instead of your own hard drive, and pow, all of a sudden you’re in the cloud! It sounds good, but what exactly have you just done? You’ve launched a web page, used it, and closed it. This isn’t revolutionary, this is just the internet(which was revolutionary). The internet has always worked this way: you connect to a remote server, ask it to do something, and see the results on your screen.
Now while cloud computing isn’t new, it’s certainly more powerful than previous types of remote computing. Cloud computing is the result of increases in connection speed, server power, and storage capability. Taken together, these advances allow you to do more tasks and store more things remotely than were previously possible. When you had to connect over a 56k modem, it wasn’t possible to send and receive enough data to work on an application through your browser at the same speed that you could on a local program, and so you did it on your own computer. Now with broadband and wireless (not to mention mobile computing) expanding to more areas and constantly speeding up (Mmm, 4G), it’s suddenly possible to get a lot more done without having to download and install a program on your home computer, and this is what’s led to the explosion of cloud services.
I may have come off a little bit negative about it in this post, so I want to make it clear that I love the cloud. I just think the hype outstrips the reality. I do a ton of work with GoogleDocs, I store things remotely, and I use Facebook (also a cloud service! All your pictures and data are stored on their servers and they’re running the application) and Dropbox. I still maintain local copies of my more important work because while cloud storage does add redundancy, it also creates new areas of failure: your internet connection and the company running the service. You don’t want to have all your documents in the cloud when your internet goes down. There were also a few high-profile outages for server-based programs recently: BlackBerry Messenger went down for days, and Apple’s new Siri service also had several hours of outages over the past weeks. While not catastrophic, these type of things make me want to maintain some of my most important work locally, where at least if my hard drive fails I can actually glare directly at it and blame myself for not backing up, rather than diffusing my anger into the cloud.