The Norman Transcript

February 10, 2013

What’s the deal with ‘the cloud?’


The Norman Transcript

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.

One example of a public cloud is the popular online file backup service, Carbonite. Carbonite has thousands of computers controlled by powerful cloud software designed to backup your computer’s files and make sure they are never lost. The idea is that, since your data is stored on many different computers housed in multiple locations around the world, if one computer or location goes down for whatever reason, your files are still safe.

Other public clouds offer different services, such as software/application hosting, security, networking, and even hosting your entire computer in the cloud, allowing folks with small-time budgets access to big-time computing power. Companies like Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Rackspace and Dell offer cloud-based services such as word processing, email, calendar sharing, file storage, network management, website hosting, and the list goes on.

Cloud computing power has its drawbacks, however. Reliability is the number one concern, with security running a close second. If all of your files, programs, emails and databases live “in the cloud,” rather than actually existing in your computer, what happens when the cloud crashes and disappears?

In October of 2012, Amazon’s EBS cloud service crashed, knocking numerous websites off line and causing permanent data loss for many users. Google’s cloud services have crashed more than once, causing millions of emails to vanish. Apple’s iCloud service crashed in May, 2012, leaving 15 million email users up in the air. Cox Communication’s email services crashed for four days right before Christmas of 2012, leaving millions of customers in at least 11 states without email service; this was especially hard on business customers during the holiday shopping season.

Clearly, reliability is a serious issue to be considered when it comes to cloud computing. Google, Dropbox and Apple have all had their cloud services hacked by Internet criminals. This situation brings cloud security to the table as a serious concern, as well, and led Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak to call cloud computing “horrendous.” Said Wozniak, “With the cloud, you don’t own anything. The more we transfer everything onto the cloud, the less we’re going to have control over it”.

Do the benefits of “the cloud” outweigh the risks? You’ll have to be the judge of that. I would prefer to see you use multiple computing strategies, rather than putting all your eggs in the cloud basket.

Dave Moore has been performing computer consulting, repairs, security and networking in Oklahoma since 1984. He also teaches computer safety workshops for public and private organizations. He can be reached at 405-919-9901 or www.davemoorecomputers.com.

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