Tuesday, May 11, 2010

What the Zark is Cloud Computing? And why should I care about it?

(This post tries to explain in very simple terms, what this technology is, how it works, what its benefits and drawbacks are and the challenges and issues that need to be resolved before we are able to embrace this technology in the way that many of us have embraced mobile phones.)

The ever-changing ecosystem of the Internet has thrown up a plethora of new technologies and terms many of which take the world by storm turning us common mortals into acolytes of the technology and throwing the others into a state of confusion.

Cloud Computing is one such technology that has come up with the ubiquity of the Internet in our personal and professional lives.

But there are many among us who are wondering, what the Zark is Cloud Computing?
Now you’re probably wondering why would they ask this simple question in such a rude manner?

Don’t blame them for being rude. Do you remember the thoughts that came into your mind when you would ask a simple little question to your teacher and would be bombarded by jargon that made no sense at all, but the teacher would expect you to ace a test based on these very same nuggets of confusion. Now you see my point? Good, lets move on.

This post will attempt to explain, in very simple terms, exactly what this technology is, how it works, what its benefits are and the challenges and issues that need to be resolved before we are able to embrace this technology in the way that many of us have embraced mobile phones.

Getting back to the crux of the matter, what is Cloud Computing?

It is a general term used to denote a set of technologies and networks that enable 'Internet-based computing' where shared resources, software and information are provided to computers and other devices on demand through the Internet. An even simpler way of explaining this would be, the use of the Internet to perform tasks that you would do on your computer.

Cloud Computing has been called, a Service, a Platform and also an Operating System. In this (super long) post, I will attempt to explain these offerings in simple terms.

Cloud Computing as a Service
A very basic service that a computer provides is storage of photos, videos, music and movies. Saving files is also a basic service offered by Cloud Computing. A good example of this service is Flickr. Starting as a website that emphasized on sharing photos but has now become a great place to store images that can be retrieved from any device anywhere around the world. Images and videos can be uploaded on to the website from absolutely anywhere in the world and can be seen from any device that is connected to the Internet. You can share photos of your friends doing random acts of drunken stupidity and have your other friends look at them from anywhere in the world without having to meet them to pass on the embarrassing photos on CDs or flash drives etc, instead, you can just email everyone the link to your Flickr album and entertain yourself at the poor drunk friends’ expense. Apart from storage and sharing, Flickr also offers you a sort of data security. If you store all these photos in your computer, chances are that they will be lost if your hard disk crashes unless you have gone through the cumbersome process of backing up your photos and videos on CDs or saved them in flash drives. While keeping a local copy (in your hard drive, CD or flash drive) has its merits, but it is also true that you are far more likely to lose all your data than Flickr losing your photos.

Cloud Computing can enable much more than just act as a storage medium for files used for sharing. It can also be used for manipulating the information/files stored within it.

Similar to the idea of Flickr, servers can be hired for the purpose of storing, accessing and updating/modifying large databases/data-sets. Say, in an organisation with different field offices, the same set of data will be available to all the offices to access and modify without each office having to modify their local copy of the database and mailing them to each member/office back and forth every time there is an update because if your data is in the cloud then every update is being made on the master database that is available to everyone through the cloud.

Cloud Computing as a Platform
I have heard many Cloud Evangelists say that the web is the next operating system. I’d say that is just an exaggeration (you’re most certainly welcome to come kick my rear end at this point of time). But yes, at the same time, I do agree that the web will be the next big platform on to which we will move a lot of our computing requirements, but we will always need some form of our beloved local operating system. A platform doesn’t necessarily have to an Operating System. It is just a structure on which applications are located and are run through it. A simple way to demonstrate would be that Windows, Mac OS and Linux are platforms and so is Java. All of them are used to run different applications but Java is not an Operating System.

By employing Cloud Computing, the Web will become a platform. You may have heard of Google Docs, many of us must have used it too. It is a platform that runs on any browser that you may be using and requires an active Internet connection.  Through Google Docs you do not need to have a word processing application installed in your computer in order to view or modify text or spreadsheet documents, making it a very good example of Cloud Computing. Another big benefit of using these online office (Office2.0) suites is the fact that many users can collaborate in real time to work on the same document that is stored on the cloud and is available to different users on different computers at the same time. On-cloud applications like Google Docs, Adobe Buzzword and Office 2.0 are increasingly taking over the computing space that was once the mainstay of office suites like MS Office and OpenOffice despite their limitations, which, by the way, are now becoming more and more functional and shouldn’t surprise people if they become the mainstay for word processing requirements of the connected masses.

But Cloud Computing isn’t just about Office 2.0, it has, silently, moved on from an office productivity suite to create applications of all kinds, from mashups to Facebook applications to Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games. Many of us have been using the Cloud in its various manifestations without even realising it. Developments that allow these applications to store some information on your local drive make the applications available offline too. A good example of this is Gmail offline, an experimental feature of Gmail allowing users to have access to their email even when they are not connected to the Internet. Storing a copy of the emails in the local hard drive, used whenever there is no Internet connection, enables the user to have access to their emails when they are not connected to the Internet. As is evident from the examples cited in this article, Google is emerging as a major player who is turning Cloud Computing into a platform.

Advantages of Cloud Computing

  • Always available

  • Highly mobile and available across platforms

  • Reduced upfront cost of deployment

  • Unlimited storage space

  • Increased computing power with rapid scalability as and when required

  • Easier workgroup collaboration in real time

  • Reduced risks of data loss

  • Fewer maintenance issues as there is no need to install or upgrade software and hardware

  • Improved compatibility between Operating Systems

Another very interesting service being offered through 'The Cloud' is a website called Picnik. Recently bought over by Google, this website offers a simple solution to the many times when people wish to make simple edits to their photos but are not conversant with advanced photo editing software like Photoshop. What's more, Picnik is available to just about anyone using any Operating System via any web browser. The application delivers basic editing tools and special effects to a beginner and integrates with most of the popular photo-sharing sites like Facebook, Flickr, MySpace, Picasa Web Albums, Photobucket etc.

Cloud as an Infrastructure

Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) enables the delivery of the computing infrastructure as a service. No longer does a company have to purchase servers, software, data centre space or networking equipment. All this can simply be outsourced to a Cloud Infrastructure Services company that will lease out all of these as a service. This service is usually billed on a pay per use basis (amount of resources consumed) that will vary according to the level of activity at any point of time. This infrastructure is typically available ‘on demand’ and can be scaled up as and when required.

The Flip Side

Just like any technology, Cloud Computing is not without its share of disadvantages. Little is spoken about them among the laypersons as they are usually given a grandiose vision of Cloud Computing by the ‘Cloud Evangelists’. That does not mean that the advantages reported are incorrect, but the devil is in the details. There are quite a few issues that need to be considered before we move all our computing requirements on to 'The Cloud.'

Cloud Computing exists on the premise that the Internet will always be robust and reliable. The reality is far from it. Its true that in most of the cities of the developed world high-speed, always on Internet is available, but in the rest of the world, even the cities of an IT powerhouse like India suffer from sporadic Internet connectivity. Not only that, uninterrupted supply of electricity is still unrealised in the country. Looking at the situation logically, if the remote server or network is not available, then the content will also be unavailable.

Security is another aspect that still needs to be taken care of. In this connected world where we, often times, are unable to keep our corporate intranets secure, companies are wary about keeping their data on external servers. Derived from this, another reason for their lack of enthusiasm is that for a variety of reasons, legal and otherwise, certain companies and industries are required to keep a strict watch on their data at all times, which means, they are not going to send that data outside the corporate firewall.

Reliability of these cloud services is still a major issue. The September 2009 outage of Gmail caused a huge outcry among those who depend on Gmail as their primary email, imagine the consequences of a similar outage of the cloud services. On 15th February 2008, Amazon Web Services was struck by a temporary outage lasting about 2 hours. The outage dragged down with itself thousands of websites that rely on its hosted storage. Hit hardest by the outage were a multitude of Web2.0 startups who rely on hosted storage to keep their costs down, the badly hit sites included the micro-blogging site, twitter and the New York Time which uses Amazon’s Simple Storage Service (S3) to store articles from its archives. Though these things can also happen inside an enterprise but typically a company has enough redundancy equipment to ensure that a failure in its servers/data centre doesn’t bring own the entire system.

Online office suites still lack many of the advanced features that are available on their offline counterparts.

Disadvantages of Cloud Computing 

  • Access requires always on and high-speed Internet connectivity

  • Technology is still at a nascent stage

  • As yet unresolved security and privacy issues

  • Lack of industry standards and interoperability among applications

  • Limited features as yet

  • Users are subject to many terms and conditions

  • Not environmentally sustainable

  • What if the Cloud loses your data?

Despite the commonly held belief that Cloud Computing is ‘Green’, there has been no published study to support this and looking at it with a theoretical point of view, it seems to suggest that it actually consumes more power than the traditional data centre model. Despite moving to the Cloud Computing model we must not forget that the remote servers are still consuming megawatts of power by the hour at an ever-increasing rate and not all clouds are built to the highest energy efficiency standards.

Cloud Computing is criticised by privacy advocates for the fact that Cloud Services Companies can lawfully or unlawfully; monitor the communication and the stored information on the host servers.

There are many questions that need to be answered when one considers moving to the ‘Cloud’. Does the user or the Cloud services company own the data? Can the host deny a user access to their own data? If the host company goes out of business, what happens to the users' data it holds? What happens to a piece of data once a user deletes it from the Cloud, is it really irretrievable after deletion? And, most importantly from a privacy standpoint, how does the host protect the user's data?

Cloud Computing is at a very nascent stage of development around the world and it is too early to take a stand about its utility as of now, especially in the context of the developing world where high-speed, always on Internet is not yet accessible to all. One should ideally adopt a position of ‘wait and watch’ before moving critical government/corporate work processes on to the cloud until these issues are resolved and Cloud Computing emerges as a robust and reliable system.

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  1. Hey,Splendid post..Actually i tried to find out about Cloud Computing from net but it always threw at me complex jargons and esoteric presentations..but ur post made me understand Cloud Computing from a layman's point of view.. Thanks..

  2. Hey, thanks a lot for your kind words buddy. Also glad that you didn't give my post 'One Tight Whack' :p (which by the way, I loved though I am guilty of a few things mentioned there)

    My intent while writing this post was to simplify and de-jargonise it. I have spent my short life trying to do just that and intend to do that through this blog too :) I am stoked that it helped someone understand what's all the buzz about the 'Cloud'

  3. Awesome- you made it sound so simple n easy! I started reading your post (courtesy blogadda) thinking this is to do with clouds/environ/climate et al - early into the post I figured this was geeky! Was tempted a wee bit to exit but something prodded me on- and I read the entire piece! Made it read so simple! Thank you for the education:)

  4. aww thank yee Ms Mee :) I am glad to know that you found it to be uncomplicated albeit geeky :p I noticed that you have a travel blog, I do too and I have written about environment, ok well the only blogpost was years ago in my 3rd blog lol. Do take a look at them if you like. They are all in my profile.
    Now, I'm gonna go lurk on your travelbytes :D

  5. hey! ha already been to "I think, therefore I am" and I see it is cross linked to "Wayfarers n pathfinders":) In fact left some comments thr this morning too!:) Despite it being a hectic manic monday:)

  6. yaay. I do hope your monday gets less hectic now :)

  7. Very Nicely written post about cloud computing.. After reading this post its much easier to understand and relate to it..

  8. @Neha Thanks a lot Neha, I am glad it helped you understand the basics of Cloud Computing and some of the issues around it :) You might like the other posts too