There’s been a lot of talk about “the cloud” and “cloud computing” these days. If you listen to what people are saying, it makes it sound like it’s all something new and breakthrough, that gives you the latest technological advantage. If you’re not on the cloud, then you’re obviously not up to date in your computer usage.
In reality, the cloud is just another slang name for the Internet. This “new concept” actually goes all the way back to the 1950s, long before the Internet or the World Wide Web were even conceptualized. Even the term “cloud” is rather old, although we use it as if it were something new.
The slang term of “the cloud” actually started from IT departments drawing up schematic diagrams, flow charts, and block diagrams of their systems. The Internet is often depicted on these drawings as a cumulus cloud, hence the term “the cloud.” This representation comes from the fact that nobody really knows what happens in the cloud, where it happens, or how their individual node is connected to the cloud. They don’t know, because there really isn’t any reason why they need to know.
Since the beginning of computers, there have been two basic theories which have been at odds with one another. The first of these theories is centralized computing. With it, a mainframe stores all the data and programs, and individual users have a “dumb terminal” which contains just enough computing power and memory to connect to the mainframe.
Early computing was like this. Mainframe computers were hugely expensive investments. A company might buy one mainframe, and every user would connect to it through a dumb terminal. By spreading the cost of the computer over multiple users, the company made its purchase a more practical investment.
The second theory has been having everything local, on the individual’s computer. Programs and storage were individual, with connectivity to the network being saved for data sharing, communications, and accessing common data.
Through the years, these two basic theories have been bandied back and forth in companies, and especially in IT departments. In general, the IT departments preferred having centralized programs and data storage, so that they could have it under their thumb. Users, on the other hand, preferred having everything on their computers, so that they knew where it was and that nobody was messing with it.
The only real difference between cloud computing and the mainframes of the past is that the mainframe has been replaced by the Internet. Personal computers are essentially used as terminals to connect to the Internet, accessing online programs, rather than using programs that are locally stored on the computer’s hard drive. Data storage is likewise in the cloud, eliminating the need for large hard drives.
Quite a number of companies are making use of the cloud to provide SaaS (software as a service). These companies, which range from little startups to some of the biggest Internet companies that are, such as Google, all have one thing in common. People access the program via the cloud, doing their work through a browser on their computer and saving it in the cloud. Many of these companies charge for their services, although some provide service for free.
Google Docs, which is now called Google Drive, is an ideal example of SaaS in the cloud. They provide an office suite for free to all, with programs which are roughly compatible to Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Work is stored in Google Drive, giving the user universal access to it from any device that can connect to the cloud. The difference is, you don’t have to buy the program and install it on your computer.
While Google claims that their services are completely secure, one tends to wonder just how secure. With the recent attention that the NSA has been receiving for their data mining operations and spying on U.S. citizens, one has to wonder if their data stored in Google Drive is as easily penetrated by the government spying operations as the posts we make on Facebook.
Advantages of Cloud Computing
The major reason why cloud computing is becoming popular is that it holds a number of advantages for users, especially for companies who are trying to provide computer services to all their employees.
Cloud computing makes collaboration between a team of users extremely easy. The fact that the files are in the cloud provides access to everyone on the team. Changes are tracked automatically, with the ability to undo changes and go back to earlier versions.
Cloud computing eliminates the need to buy copies of programs for every computer that the company has. Ultimately using the cloud for applications is cheaper for companies than the cost of buying everyone the software that they need. A company license for a particular package can be bought, allowing X number of users access to the software.
Cloud computing reduces the amount of IT support needed, because support for the programs is provided by the service providers.
Cloud computing allows access to a lot of specialized SaaS programs for a much lower cost than purchasing such programs.
Cloud computing allows users to access software and data from a variety of devices, such as their computers, iPads and smart phones.
All data is automatically backed up, greatly reducing the risk of losing critical data to a server or hard drive crash.
Disadvantages of Cloud Computing
While many people are excited about the advantages that cloud computing offers, there are some disadvantages as well.
If Internet access is lost, due to a bad connection, so is the ability to work on anything.
While the information stored in the cloud is supposed to be secure, there is always a risk of someone hacking into the server that has the data.
If the server goes down, the ability to work is stopped; at least until the service provider is able to restore service.
Access to your data is controlled by others.
There is a risk that cloud computing will increase in cost, as people and companies become more dependent on it.
The issue of intellectual property of data stored on the cloud has not been resolved. Does it belong to the creator, or the company who is hosting the data?
It is clear that the cloud is here to stay and that more and more companies will be providing SaaS through the cloud. While many are gradually switching over to the cloud, there will always be a group of people whose paranoia or suspicions will prevent them from doing so. Whether they are right or wrong is something that we can’t foresee, but must wait to see the results.