Cloud Computing (Information Technology, Tech Made Simple)

Paul M. Foster (10 January 2012 22:03:17 Revised )

You've heard of "Cloud Computing". You may have wondered what it is or whether it's for you. Here's an explanation.

When I as in high school, which was a few years before "personal computers" were invented, there were "computer topics" at the end of the chapters in one of my math books. They contained little computer programs which would illustrate and exercise what you learned in the chapter. I asked one of my math teachers about whether there was a computer around somewhere on which you could try this stuff in these "computer topic" sections. She disappeared and then finally came back to me with a solution.

Down at the end of one hall of my high school was a seldom-used teacher's lounge. It was a tiny room with a bathroom, some cabinets, a bunch of boxes, some chairs and such. But it also had a teletype terminal and an acoustic modem. She didn't know much about it, but managed to obtain for me a username and password, and we figured out how to turn the teletype on and use the acoustic modem. You turned the teletype on, dialed the phone number she had, stuck the receiver on this padded gizmo. You listened to the tones, and eventually the teletype came alive and gave you a prompt. It had a big roll of cheap paper on it. The prompt told you that you were connected to the school district's mainframe computer. It asked for your username and password, which you'd type out at each prompt.

Once it recognized you as a valid user, it sat there. You could give it commands like "MENU". The menu had some games in it, like chess, checkers and tic-tac-toe. (It had a Star Trek game, too, which I eventually played a lot of.) It also presented you the ability to write and run programs you'd written in mainframe BASIC. I eventually bought a book on BASIC and wrote some programs to compute things like interest rates, etc.

Back in the 70s and earlier, the computer was always this huge gizmo housed in a virtually refrigerated room, accessible only by the high priests of the computer. When I got to college, I asked someone how you did computers at my university. Turns out that you bought a whole bunch of punch cards at the University Co-Op (the off-campus store where you bought textbooks, office supplies, composition books, etc.). You went to the "Comp Center" and typed your program out on a keypunch machine (on your purchased punch cards). Then you turned them over to the priests at the Comp Center. Three days later, they'd hand your cards back to you with a print-out of the results of your program, usually a failure because of bugs in your program.

I asked the guy if there wasn't some way to directly interact with the Comp Center's computers. He replied that the only way you got that kind of access was if you were a grad student. Needless to say, after my experience in high school, I was discouraged about the prospect of dealing with the computers in college in such a far-removed way. I never took a computer course in college.

You may wonder what all this has to do with cloud computing. Well, come forward 35 years, and you essentially find that cloud computing is about the same thing as my experience back in 1974 in high school. Here's the main difference: a teletype has no memory and no real ability to compute anything. Your computer (or iPad or iPhone), on the other hand, has many times more power than the computers which sent men to the moon.

Since the early 80s, when the IBM PC came out, desktop or personal computers have been accumulating more and more memory, storage capacity and computing power. So much so that you can now play and edit full motion video on your desktop computer. You can send and receive email. You can create spreadsheets, store and edit family photos, create resumés and even play video games. In three and a half decades, the rise in computing power available right on your desktop has been no less than stunning.

What "cloud computing" represents is a return to the type of experience I detailed in 1974, except with "smarter" computers. Instead of having the spreadsheet program on your desktop computer, that program is somewhere in "the cloud". Instead of storing your family photos on your own perfectly capable desktop computer, you store them in "the cloud". Instead of preparing your resume or editing your videos with software residing on your computer, you will rely on software somewhere in "the cloud". Video games? They're in "the cloud" too.

Do you see the difference?

Before "the cloud" came along, you relied on software you bought or which came with your computer, which resided wholly on your computer. The response time was relatively fast, and all the processing and storage of documents was done on your computer. You didn't need to be connected to the cloud, the web or anything. It was all done on your own personal computer.

But with "the cloud" the programs are all in "the cloud" (as in, not on your computer, and the documents (photos, letters, videos and whatnot) are somewhere in "the cloud" as well. You pay by the gigabyte or whatever to access them. I'm oversimplifying a bit. When you launch the word processor from "the cloud", for example, little pieces of it get temporarily installed on your computer, and part of the "computing" involved in writing your document gets done on your computer. But when you're done and you close the word processor, the pieces of that program that got installed disappear, and the document gets stored somewhere not on your computer. It's also worth noting that since the computing is done partially in "the cloud" and partially on your computer, it's slower than it would be if it was all done on your local machine. This kind of thing drives me nuts, but maybe you wouldn't mind.

There are advantages to this setup. I had a customer who opted for cloud computing for this reason: He had several shop locations, each with several copies of different versions of Microsoft Word. To upgrade them all to the same version and keep them upgraded would have cost him a fortune. Alternatively, he could pay by the whatever (hour, gigabyte, whatnot) and everyone would have access to the same cloud version of whatever version of Word Microsoft uses in "the cloud". From his viewpoint, it was a cheaper alternative. He also didn't have to worry about whether documents were at one shop and unreachable by another shop. His documents would now be reachable by anyone at any of his shops, because the documents were now in "the cloud". He also doesn't have to worry if one of his shops burns down or gets broken into. All his software and documents are in "the cloud".

There are probably advantages for companies like Microsoft and Adobe as well. Maybe you remember when you bought software that came with inch-thick manuals. Then that became too expensive and they just sent an extra CD with your software, which contained the manual on it. Now they don't even have to do that. They don't have to send you anything. You sign up for "the cloud" and the software's there. Nothing to ship. And because they're charging you by the month or by the gigabyte, they can keep you on the hook virtually forever, providing them with a continuous stream of income. No more of Adobe having to worry if you'd upgrade at the next major version of their software. You want continued access to their software and your documents, you pay. Nice.

(Of course, if you're like me and you run Linux, a lot of this stuff doesn't matter. I use FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) programs that I don't have to pay for. And, like any smart computer user, I back my programs and data up. and keep offsite backups. But that's just me.)

And then there are the down sides. What happens if you don't happen to like Microsoft's cloud version of Word, or Excel or whatever? Well, if you're using Microsoft's cloud, that's too bad. Same thing with IBM's cloud or Amazon's cloud. You're stuck with their software. What if you absolutely hate the newest version of Excel for the "cloud"? Gosh, that's too bad. What happens if you like their software okay, but one day something happens with the billing and you believe you've been screwed by Amazon, where your "cloud" is? How do you switch everything over to IBM's "cloud" and IBM's software? Can you easily transfer your documents over to IBM's "cloud"? Well, maybe you should just hope you don't have to find out. Oh, did I tell you everyone has their own "cloud" and they don't necessarily talk to each other? Yeah, I did forget. Sorry about that. And what if you want to work on some of your documents offline, or you, for some inexplicable reason, lose your access to the internet? Yeah, well, you're cut off from "the cloud" at that point. If you're not on the internet, you're not talking to "the cloud".

I haven't mentioned security so far. Is your data safe from prying eyes? Probably. Supposedly, it's encrypted in such a way that not even the priests who take care of "the cloud" can read it. There's no way to tell if that's true until the first "cloud" security breach. Then we'll know. Of course, at that point, it will be too late, won't it?

Is there any way your "cloud" data could get lost or disappear? Well, it's supposed to be saved on multiple computers in the "cloud". Those computers are in some non-descript location in Omaha or Flagstaff, or wherever, along with thousands of other computers in "the cloud". Realistically, it would probably take a major natural disaster or nuclear strike in that area for you to lose all your data. But then again, we may never know until it actually happens.

You remember how I said "cloud" computing was like my experience with the mainframe back in 1974? In case it's not clear, the point I was making is that, in 1974, all the intelligence and all the data was in some computer(s) somewhere else, and what you had was just a way to talk to that computer. And it seems we're returning to that, where all the software and all the data has returned to some computer somewhere ("the cloud"), and that iPad you're using to access "the cloud" is really just a glorified way to talk to that computer (or more correctly, those computers).

Oh, and did I tell you that I believe this is where the software companies wanted you all along? Of course, I could be wrong.