Cloud Computing's New Opportunities
Cloud computing has been around for ages, but now it offers new opportunities.
Tech pundits have two pet topics to jabber happily about right now. One, obviously, is the tablet (or, more to the point, the iPad). The other is the cloud.
“Cloud computing,” or more simply “the cloud,” sounds awfully gossamer, but it’s not a new idea. In fact, you’re probably already a user of cloud technology via its original application: web-based email. When you check your account on Hotmail, Yahoo! Mail or Gmail, those messages are never downloaded to your computer. They stay on the mail service as you read them, and when you log off, everything stays right where you left it. That’s the basic idea behind how any cloud service works.
Contrast this with the old way of doing things: Install software on your computer, save all your data files on your hard drive and rely on email and thumbdrives to share everything. The cloud eliminates all that. Applications live inside web pages; files are stored on web servers; and anyone you authorize can access them at any time. You never deal with the files directly—it’s all done for you out there in the ether. Hence the idea of “the cloud.”
Yet the cloud can be a confusing place. It includes all kinds of services, ranging from simple and free (including the aforementioned webmail, photo hosting and Google Apps) to complex and expensive (such as Salesforce.com and Amazon’s EC2). Cloud-based services can be wildly different, but they all share at least a little DNA. Most notably, they have some common advantages and risks, no matter how sophisticated the service behind them might be.
Cloud computing is attractive because of the obvious benefits it offers over traditional computing technology and techniques. For example, simplicity: If you manage 1,000 computers, do you really want to troubleshoot 1,000 Microsoft Office installations? Deal with 1,000 spam filters for 1,000 Outlook users? IT on a large scale (or a small scale) is a nightmare that requires staffing, servers and all kinds of headaches.
But with cloud technology, sharing is a snap. No more scouring your hard drive to find where that presentation was saved or, even worse, who has the most recent version. In a cloud system, everyone has access to a central repository of files that anyone can edit. In some cases, multiple people can make changes to a document simultaneously—something that’s impossible to do offline. Multiple versions may be archived, so if someone messes something up, you can always jump back to an earlier incarnation.
Then there’s price. Cloud computing alternatives are generally much cheaper than their traditional competitors. In fact, you can get started with some of the most popular cloud systems, such as Google Docs, for no cost at all.
Naturally, though, there are drawbacks to the cloud as well. The big one is that it requires an Internet connection whenever you want to use it. If your connection often drops, your wireless router is flaky or you have a penchant for flying on planes without Wi-Fi, the cloud can prove frustrating to the point of uselessness. Another commonly mentioned concern: security. Every provider tends to stress that it takes great pains to secure your data, but ultimately, all a determined intruder needs to do is crack one password to have access to everything—not just your files, but also all the data you have rights to share. That’s probably an easier proposition than breaking into your desktop when it’s locked up at the office. And what happens if your cloud service provider goes out of business? (It happens all the time.)
Finally, there’s the not-so-small issue that cloud services, for most people, are a new way of working. Some—again, see Google Docs—look familiar, but the differences are often substantial enough to require extra training for less savvy users who aren’t comfortable figuring things out by trial and error.
Cloud computing may not be a new idea, but its usage continues to evolve. Here are a few of the most interesting and valuable ways to make the cloud work for you:
Security and Surveillance: Setting up a security camera system used to mean a massive investment in equipment, banks of tapes and tons of knowhow to get it all to work—and even then, someone was likely to make a mistake at just the wrong moment and delete everything. Today, you can get inexpensive cameras that will alert you if motion is detected, allowing live or recorded video to be viewed via web browser or cell phone.
Video Entertainment: YouTube was just the beginning. Now services like Netflix, with its “watch instantly” system, can stream thousands of movies to your PC, tablet or cell phone for a few bucks a month. So long, DVDs.
Storage and Backup: The easiest (and least elegant) way to back up a file? Email it to yourself and leave it in your webmail account. But online backup has become extremely sophisticated: Cloud-based services can monitor your PC in real time for files that have been changed, then immediately back them up online so you’re never at risk of data loss.
Mobile Office APPS: Google Docs is the easy version of this, providing a basic word processor and spreadsheet program for free to users with limited needs. But companies such as Zoho offer dozens of additional business apps beyond the basics, including complex project scheduling, customer relationship management (CRM) and human resources management.
The even better news is that most of these apps have been built with mobility squarely in mind: Netflix has a native application for the iPad and iPhone; Logitech’s Alert digital security cameras let you view video directly on your phone; and Zoho Mobile runs on virtually every smartphone OS around. If you can do it in the cloud, chances are you can do it on a smartphone or a tablet. Sure, you’ll still be in the dark when you’re cruising at 30,000 feet—but hey, that’s what Fruit Ninja is for.