Ken Colburn: In computer terms, when you hear the term "cloud," it's a reference to the Internet, which in early technical diagrams was represented as a cloud.
Q. What are the pros and cons of "cloud computing"? - Jason
A. In computer terms, when you hear the term "cloud," it's a reference to the Internet, which in early technical diagrams was represented as a cloud.
Cloud computing has many inferences, but its simplest reference is to a computing application that resides on the Internet instead of your local computer's hard drive.
Cloud computing is often called Software as a Service (SaaS) in the corporate IT world, as it offers businesses lower startup and maintenance costs for complex applications that are available for an ongoing monthly fee. Instead of having to buy special machines and special software, get everything installed and configured, then build a strong backup system, companies can simply buy off-the-shelf, average-performance computers, connect them to the Internet and get started.
The ease of access to high-speed Internet connections and the popularity of Netbooks will likely push the popularity of cloud computing.
For average consumers, there are many free and low-cost cloud computing options that they've been using for years without realizing what it was called.
Gmail is a good example of a consumer cloud computing offering, as it's a very powerful e-mail system that is entirely housed and processed by Google's servers. Unlike Microsoft's Outlook Express, which is also free, you aren't tied to a single computer to get your e-mail. Gmail, because it's in the cloud, can be accessed by any Internet-connected computer from anywhere in the world, while those using Outlook Express must go to a specific machine or machines that have been configured to access the mail.
Another comparison is with tax-preparation software; you can buy the disk, install it on your own computer (and only use it on that one computer), then be responsible for backup of the data; or you can sign up for an online account (no software to install) that allows you to do your taxes from home or work and eliminates the chances of losing your work if your computer crashes, is stolen or is destroyed in a fire.
Cloud computing offers flexibility and accessibility and transfers the responsibility for backup and upgrades to the host. It also is infinitely scalable to as many users as have access to an Internet connection.
The downside is that if you don't have access to the Internet, your connection goes down or the host's servers get overloaded or attacked, you have no way to process your data or run your business.
If you run your business on a Gmail account, for example, and something happens to Google's mail servers (as has happened on several occasions, generally for short periods), then you are unable to communicate with your customers during the outage.
Twitter's recent distributed-denial-of-service attack that brought it down for several hours underscored what happens when millions of users rely on even a free service. Those who relied on Twitter as part of their business model were temporarily out of business, with no alternatives during the outage.
Another concern with cloud computing is data security; because it's in the cloud, it's exposed to the various ways that data can be compromised on the Internet. The reality is that information is equally as exposed to security issues when it resides on local hard drives or local servers (viruses, Trojans, keyloggers, employees, etc.). So the issue isn't which is more secure, but which are you more comfortable with from a security standpoint.
It can be argued that large organizations that offer cloud computing applications are much more focused on round-the-clock security than most small- to medium-sized businesses. But you are ultimately putting yourself at the mercy of others.
For most businesses, a combination of cloud applications that talk to local systems, with the data residing in both places, is likely to be the best long-term solution.
For the average consumer, e-mail, photo sharing, video sharing, online backup, online gaming, social networking, stock trading and tax preparation are just a few of the existing areas where computing "in the cloud" is very common.
Cloud computing is for everyone, but it isn't for everything, yet. So as long as you weigh the pros and cons I've outlined above before making each decision, you can make an informed choice before committing yourself to the cloud.
Ken Colburn is president of Data Doctors Computer Services and host of the "Computer Corner" radio show, which can be heard at noon Saturdays on 92.3 KTAR-FM or at www.datadoctors.com/radio. Readers may send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.