Cloud computing is a technology that is taking the world by, well, storm. Even if you don’t know what cloud computing is, you most likely use it in your everyday life. If you use Facebook, webmail, or online banking, you’re probably taking advantage of cloud computing.
So what is cloud computing? Cloud computing is the utilization of a network of computers to accomplish a certain task or run software. This is in contrast to say, ten years ago, if you wanted to install an application. You had to download it, then install it. And even then, it was only available on that machine. If you bought a new laptop, you’d need to install it on there.
Instead, cloud computing uses the collective power of dozens, hundreds, if not thousands of computers to bring YOU fully functional software without needing a powerful computer yourself to run it. It’s like instead of doing a math problem on your own, you write it on a chalkboard, then have dozens of math majors do the problem for you and give you the answer faster and more accurate than you could ever do on your own. All you need is a web browser or some other lightweight software on your computer.
As it can seem, this is huge. It enables access to your data all the time — I’m sure you use Google Docs, and one of the best parts of it is that you can take notes at school then go home and not have to open your laptop to get access to those notes. You are utilizing the computing power of thousands of servers to type up that document, then also utilizing the hard drives of thousands of servers to keep that file. And an advantage is that if one of those thousands of servers breaks, you don’t lose your file — it’s distributed among all of those servers for redundancy. Whereas if your computer with Microsoft Word on it breaks, well… let’s hope you kept a backup of all your documents.
In addition, it’s incredibly cheap. You no longer have to buy a computer with 10339.102 jiggawatts of power, or with 4069GB of RAM. You just need a computer that barely works. It’s one reason why tablets, netbooks, and ultrabooks are so popular. Their lower specs can be made up by still giving you full access to Gmail, Google Docs, and Facebook.
Imagine how happy companies are about this. Their infrastructure can literally be built on the cloud. And newer startups don’t have to invest thousands of dollars on computers that a cheap one can do. In fact one person in another class I took started a business that was entirely cloud based. He used Gmail for his company email, an online version of Quickbooks for accounting, Dropbox for file sharing, an online CRM to manage customer relationships… and the list goes on. He didn’t even need an actual office!
Another advantage with cloud computing is that you only pay for the space that you use. Let’s say you started your own business, and estimated that you would have 10 employees, then bought 10 licenses of Windows 7 and 10 licenses of Microsoft Office 2010. But… well, a couple months down the road, times are tough, and you have to permanently let go several employees — your workload might be a bit more, but it’s manageable. And now you have leftover licenses that you paid for, but can’t get a refund on. If you had instead just used cloud computing, you would stop paying for those employees that no longer work there.
Cloud computing makes businesses more efficient. In addition, you can downsize your IT department! If all of your employees are using Gmail, then the tech support is all on Google’s side for email — they’re the ones providing it. I believe we talked about this as one of the characteristics of Web 2.0 — the utilization of software as a service, rather than a product in itself.
Now, all of that sounds great, but it sounds too good to be true! There are downsides to cloud computing. For one: privacy issues. Since you have access to your data anywhere you go, it has to be stored somewhere that’s not your own computer — it’s stored on a server, far far away. Do you trust Random Company, Inc. with some information that could possibly be personally identifiable, or even worse, financially sensitive? I guess it depends on your aversion to risk.
For example, the file sharing site Megaupload was taken down, without warning, by the FBI earlier this year. Many users used Megaupload as a file storage site — if space on your hard drive was limited, you uploaded it to Megaupload so you could still have access to it, but not need it on your hard drive. Of course, some other people used it illegitimately and for illegal file sharing. But either way, if you had files on there, you lost it for good. Because you’re not the only one putting files on there, you can’t exactly control if the government is going to decide whether it’s legal or not.
In addition, because you’re not directly in control of your own files, if a website you are storing data with has poor security, they have the potential to be hacked and you could lose your financial information (if you were storing it there) to hackers. Now rather, if it was in your possession and your possession only, you could control how safe you are keeping it.
So what are your thoughts on cloud computing? It’s definitely transformed the corporate environment — they have the resources to utilize cloud computing to its full potential, and also have the money to buy their own equipment to ensure that they can store their own confidential information. But do you trust Random Company, Inc. with your own information? Maybe you keep your confidential information off those services — which is great, but even if you put a homework assignment on the cloud, you’re not really in control of it.
As much as I want to trust my bank with my information, the fact that online banking exists in the first place means that there is a risk (however little) that someone could steal my identify. And with keyloggers and other malware infecting websites and computers… who’s to say they don’t have it already, and just waiting to strike?
With that being said, I do love cloud computing. It’s an odd thing to think about but… even though the future wasn’t what people in the 1900s thought it would be, with flying cars and jetpacks, we basically are in the future. We have the entire Internet at our fingertips, anywhere we go, and we have software that can be accessible from anywhere rather than just the computer you installed it on. We have computers as small as our palm that are more powerful than a football field worth of computers back in the 1960s. Computers have become so powerful that it would be a shame not to use them to their fullest potential.
I think that the disadvantages with cloud computing are outweighed by the positives; I’m not denying that there is a possibility of identify theft and a loss of control, but I think that given a couple years or even already if they haven’t started now, we will start to see more and more regulations on companies that host cloud computing services to ensure that their customer’s data is safe. Hopefully it will be enough. I don’t think I’ve heard of my own bank or any other bank having issues with hackers getting in to their online system. I think it’s worth the risks. What about you?