Tuesday, November 24, 2009

What is Cloud Computing?

Even if you're relatively new to the internet, you might have heard this term being bounced around.  You might not be sure exactly what it means or what its impact will be.

Let me tell you right now, its impact will be huge in the upcoming years, and, in fact, it's very likely that you're already using it.  In fact, in some ways, it's getting difficult to tell, sometimes, when you are using it and when you're not.

What is "The Cloud"?

Let's talk about it and clarify it, so you know what we're talking about.  The internet, as a whole, is a huge, and vastly complicated space.  It's kind of hard to visualize just how big and expansive it is.  If someone were to sketch a visual representation of it, it would be very difficult.  That's why a lot of tech-y people in recent years have started calling it "The Cloud". 

If you send an email, you don't really have to know how it gets from here to there, right?  You just click "Send", and it goes out into "The Cloud" and it somehow arrives at its destination.  Do you see how well that works as a visualization?

Now, for a long time, people used their computers to do their writing, their games, their spreadsheets, their games, their calculations, their graphics, their games, and all sorts of other things.  They bought office software with word processors to write letters, they bought games and installed and played them.  They bought music players and video makers, and picture editors, and every time they bought a program they installed it on their own computers.  They stored their pictures and their videos and their game saves all on their own computers.

When they went out into "The Cloud", on the internet, they were just looking for information.  They'd read something, or they'd find something they were interested in.  Maybe they'd download something, like a program to install.

What's Cloud Computing?

Gradually, over the last few years, more and more people have begun to actually "Do" things out on the 'net.  So, instead of opening up an email reader program on my computer, they would go to a website on the 'net (in the cloud) and read their email from there.  Instead of just opening up their game on their hard drive, they would go to the game's website, login, and begin playing online.  Instead of opening up a word processor, writing a report, and saving it to my hard drive, they would go to a website that opened up an online word processing program, type the report, save it online, and be done.

The big difference is that instead of using a software that they purchased and installed on their computers, they're accessing programs and applications through websites.  That's why they're also called "Web Apps".  Since it all happens out on the Internet cloud, it's called "Cloud Computing".

Advantages of Cloud Computing

So, what's the big deal?  Why is it such a hot topic right now?  Well, there are a number of real advantages to using programs that aren't stored on your own computer.

  • If you have internet access, you can get to your work.  You can get to it from your job, your home, your supersmart cell phone, your public library, your friend's computer, etc...  Anywhere that you can get to the 'net, you can get to your stuff.
  • Your stuff changes with you.  If you work on something at home, and then you get to work, all the changes you made at home are still saved!  That's because the copy you were working on didn't reside at home or at work, but out on a server computer somewhere in the cloud.  You're just accessing the same thing from home or work.  Maybe you level up your wizard character in your onlinefantasy game late one night.  Then, when you're over at your friend's house the next day, you can take off playing right from where you left off!
  • You can allow others to access your stuff, so you can collaborate.  School project teams can cooperate better, and work teams can get more done.
  • You don't have to buy, download, and install upgrades.  When the company makes a better version, they just set it up in the cloud, and suddenly, everyone's using it!
  • A lot of the web apps you can find are FREE!  They're either supported by advertising, or they have premium features that you have to pay for.

There's Gotta Be a Downside...

There are some problems and disadvantages.  Let's talk about those for a minute.

  • It's nice to have instant access from anywhere that you have a web connection.  But what if you want to work and your internet goes down?  You're stuck!
  • What if the servers that the web app company uses go down?  You're stuck!  Fortunately, most web app companies realize just how much people rely on them, and they set up backups and redundancies to keep their systems running smooth!
  • Some of the free web aps out there are very good, but not as full-featured as their old-school counterparts.  They'll handle most of the tasks you'll need most of the time, but occasionally, you might need one of the more specialized features, and it might not be there.  Still, as cloud computing grows and becomes more popular, the web apps will become more and more robust.
  • Security can be an issue.  If you're keeping your work on a computer out there in "the cloud", who has access to it, and the legal right to view it?  Just how much privacy do you have?

The whole concept of cloud computing, for a long time, was the talk only of the tech-y and the big business people.  It's only recently become commonplace enough for mainstream computer consumers.  Recently, small computers, called "netbooks" have started to appear in computer stores.  These will often have no hard drive storage of their own, no way to install a program, and will only access web apps.  They're becoming more and more popular with students and those that travel for work.

The reason that it's coming so strongly to the forefront is that Google is introducing a full operating system (called "Chrome") designed entirely to utilize web apps. Some are saying it may eventually replace Windows.  Others scoff. 

Whether or not it does, cloud computing is definitely here to stay, and will be growing.  The more you're aware, and the more you're able to use it, the more effective you'll be!

Here are some common and useful web apps to explore:

Mark is currently in the curriculum Department of an internet and SEO training company. Mark also has other sites and blogs, including Mark's Black Pot - Dutch Oven Recipes, MarkHansenMusic.com and his MoBoy blog.

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