If you are reading this, then the odds are good that you have heard of cloud computing. While it is being put forth as the next great thing, in many ways it is a return to the early days of computing.
Oversimplifying things, the basic idea behind one type of cloud computing is that users are able to tap into vast computing power via the internet. To be a bit more specific, imagine that you need to run a complex analysis of vast amounts of data. Sadly, all you have is a mere desktop PC. Powerful, yes. But not powerful enough to grind through all that data before your data is obsolete. The solution? Send it to the cloud. Rather than running the analysis on your PC, the analysis would be done by other computers that you would access via the web.
One current example of what some people consider cloud computing is Google Docs. Instead of doing your word processing and spreadsheets using programs installed on your PC, using Google docs allows you to do the same thing via a web browser. Your files are stored on the Google servers, so you can access them from any computer that has a web connection. Google Docs is but one example of what is planned for the future-the hope is that eventually almost all software will reside on servers and all you will need on your computer is a web browser to access everything.
This sort of cloud computing does have a certain appeal. One appeal is the fact that you can access your documents and data from (almost) any PC with a web connection. As such, leaving your files at home while on a business trip or at school would be a thing of the past. A second appeal is that the technology will allow users to have simpler and cheaper computers. This is because the majority of the work will be done by the computers in the cloud rather than your PC. A third appeal is that the hassle of updates and such will be largely gone-the server computers will always have the latest versions. A fourth appeal is that the platform will be largely irrelevant. No longer will users have to worry about Mac vs. Pc vs. Linux versions of software-it will all be served up via the magic of the cloud.
Of course, cloud computing does have some downsides. As mentioned above, it is a return to an old model of computing that went away for many good reasons. This old model, which I used as a kid, was the use of dumb terminals that would dial up mainframe computers. While today’s computers are vastly better, the reasons people moved from the mainframe to the personal computer still remain.
I’ll now present some of the reasons why I find the cloud somewhat unappealing.
First, there is the fact that to use cloud computing, you have to be connected to the cloud. While I already use many internet based programs (Slacker, WordPress, etc.), I am glad that I do not have to rely on my internet connection to do my important work. For example, I am working on a project for a gaming company and the deadline is fast approaching. While doing my writing today, my internet connection has gone out a few times. If I had to rely on the cloud, I’d be screwed in terms of getting my work done in a reliable manner. Of course, the cloud people have an answer-you can run the software on your PC while your connection is down and then connect back to the cloud when your connection is back. My reply is the obvious one-if I need to have software for when my PC is offline, why should I go to the cloud when I already have what I need on my PC? The cloud folks might reply that the cloud will give me the above mentioned universal access to my documents. While that is appealing, I can do the same thing by using various online storage options (such as just emailing the files to myself). Also, there is the worry that the cloud that holds your data might go out of business. In that case, you’ll have to hope that your data is also on your PC.
Second , while I do like the idea of having a simpler and cheaper computer, there is the concern that I just raised above. If my web connection is out and my computer relies entirely on the web, I have a simpler and cheaper brick. If my computer has to be able to run the software offline as well, then it will presumably still be a normal PC.
Third, while I like automatic updates, I also like being in control of my updates. I have used software that actually became worse with each new version. Features I used vanished and features I disliked were added. Also, the model being used for this type of online software is often subscription based. I’d rather be able to just buy a program and use it, rather than having to pay an ongoing subscription fee.
Fourth, while I do like the idea of not worrying about the OS and platform, I’ll believe it when I see it. I use Macs, Windows PCs and Linux PCs and notice that the web experience can vary with each one. Perhaps this will get sorted out in the clouds someday.
Overall, I do find the cloud appealing. If my web access were as reliable as my phone and electricity, I might even be tempted to get on a cloud of my own.
In a nice bit of irony, just as I was about to publish this, my Comcast connection went down again. Fortunately, I copy and paste long blogs into my word processor for just such occasions. Yes, it will be a while before you see me trying to put my important work on a cloud.