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February 10, 2013

What’s the deal with ‘the cloud?’

NORMAN — Wow, it’s been a while since I’ve seen a more over-hyped, yet lesser-understood term in the world of computing than “cloud.” What is “the cloud,” anyway, and why am I supposed to want one?

“The cloud,” is a term derived from the phrase “cloud computing,” a concept that has been around for at least 50 years in the field of computer networking. Somewhat related to “grid” computing, “utility” computing and “cluster” computing, cloud computing is a re-hash of the idea that, if you can tie many computers together (a network) and have them all work together on the same project, you can have a very powerful system with redundant resources that can be used by many people.

In this context, when you hear the term “cloud,” think “Internet,” because that’s what the cloud will be for most people. There are “private clouds,” vast networks of thousands of common-purpose computers owned and used by large businesses or government institutions, but, for most folks, their cloud will be a “public” cloud comprised of multiple interconnected computers, made available by a service provider to the general public and accessed via the Internet.

Why “cloud,” though? Why are these special-purpose computer networks called “clouds,” anyway? Why aren’t they called “trees,” or “webs” (hmmm), or “48 Fords?” Why “clouds?”

Nobody really knows, for sure, except that clouds (up in the sky) are large, fuzzy objects that are constantly changing shape. This is a pretty good analogy for computer clouds, in that computers are regularly being added, subtracted and moved around to suit whatever task is at hand.

Information “in the cloud” moves around from machine to machine, and is usually in many places at once, depending on whatever is required at the time. Like a living organism, old cells (computers) die off and are replaced by new cells in order to keep the whole thing going and sustain whatever information has been put there. Cloud computing is a brainiac concept, for sure, but, through brilliant programming and constant maintenance, it works; at least, most of the time.

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