May 2010

Cloud Computing: What, How and Why

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Cloud Computing has been called, a Service, a Platform and also an Operating System. In this article, the author has attempted to explain this new technology, its possible usage and its pros and cons in simple terms.

What’s in the Cloud?

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 converts of the technology and sending many of us into a state of confusion.

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

Now the biggest question is, what is Cloud Computing? Ask that question and a layperson will be bombarded by a plethora of jargons which s/he has absolutely no clue about. Instead of answering the question, it pushes them into deeper confusion. This article will attempt to explain to a layperson exactly what this technology is, how it works, what are its benefits and what are the challenges and issues that need to be resolved before we are able to embrace this technology the way that we have embraced mobilephones.

Cloud Computing: What, How and WhyLets start from scratch. 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. The next few paragraphs will attempt to explain these offerings in simple terms.

Cloud Computing as a Service: A very basic service that a computer provides us, is storage of photos, videos, music and movies. Saving files is also a basic services offered by Cloud Computing. A good example of this service is Flickr (www.flickr.com). Starting as a website that emphasised on sharing photos it 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. Users can share photos of their vacations/parties etc without having to burn CDs or carrying flash drives. Instead, they can just email their friends the link to your Flickr album. Apart from storage and sharing, Flickr also offers data security. If you store all this data in your computer, chances are that they will be lost if your hard disk crashes unless you have gone through the cumbersome process of burning 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 its 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. Lets 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 because every update is being made to the master database that is available to everyone through ‘The Cloud.’

Cloud Computing as a Platform:

The general opinion is that the web is the next operating system. But that is just a hype. Though yes it is agreed 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 a 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 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.

Cloud Computing: What, How and WhyBut 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. Another very interesting service being offered through ‘The Cloud’ is a website called Picnik (www.picnik.com). 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 Flipside

Cloud Computing: What, How and WhyJust like any technology, Cloud Computing is not without its own share of disadvantages. Little is talked about them among the layperson 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 variey 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 Times which uses the 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.

Despite the commonly held belief that Cloud Computing is ‘Green’, there has been no published study to support this and looking at it from 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.

-Subir Dey
subir@csdms.in

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