It's the latest high-tech buzzword, and one that you're likely to hear more and more of. Let's say it up front: Cloud computing has nothing to do with lying on a hillside admiring the fluffy white shapes in the sky. But it potentially touches just about everything else.
Just like the nascent Internet 15 years ago, cloud computing is a potentially great technology, already big among businesses and poised to transform how everyone from global groups of scientists to individuals use and share information.
"Cloud computing has the potential to accelerate discoveries and enhance collaborations in everything from optimizing energy storage to analyzing data from climate research, while conserving energy and lowering operational costs," says Pete Beckman of the Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory. "We know that the model works well for business applications, and we are working to make it equally effective for science."
Q: What Is cloud computing?
A: It's about offering Internet access to data centers.
You go online to a cloud supplier and sign up for X amounts of computing power and storage. You upload your software and run it on the cloud. If you have an office computer with fast Internet access, and a credit card, you can control a slice of a data center when and as you need it. Prices start at 10 cents per hour.
Q: Who is doing it?
A: Some big names are involved.
You're heard of Microsoft? Amazon? Google? AT&T? Plus there are vendors whom you've never heard of, who aggregate surplus capacity from corporate data centers.
Q: Why is cloud computing all the rage?
A: It's vastly easier than rolling your own.
When subscribing to a cloud, you instantly get a virtual collection of servers with a full-court press on physical and digital security. Setting up your own would be a major feat, Cameron Nouri, evangelist for Rackspace Hosting, a cloud vendor in San Antonio, Texas, told LiveScience.
Cloud customers often have Web sites whose traffic has ballooned. Traditionally, handling that traffic would have meant installing more Web servers and the necessary management software. In the cloud, capacity can automatically adjust to demand (within reason.) You just get billed more, of course.
Q: Do individuals need to get on the cloud?
A: It's mostly a business-to-business thing so far.
Running single-user desktop applications on the cloud makes little sense, since, to access the cloud, you need a computer that could just as easily run those desktop applications. But it's a natural for multi-user or collaboration settings, or for one-off projects that exceed the capacity of an office's system.
Q: What's the cost advantage?
A: It avoids capital expenditures.
In other words, you don't have to pay up-front to buy servers, since you can rent them by the hour.
A commonly-told example is the New York Times, which had 11 million scanned articles from its archives that it wanted to convert to a new format. Doing it overnight, as desired, would take a hundred servers, and those things aren’t cheap. But the staff was able to subscribe to 100 virtual servers on a cloud, and actually make the file conversions in one day.
Q: Is cloud computing secure?
A: Yes, sure. Well, we hope so.
If words like Sarbanes-Oxley, HIPAA, and PCI DSS trigger heartburn, then you'll need to work with your cloud vendor to ensure that they adhere to the same security standards that you follow. Encrypting your data is a good start, cloud or no. But certain European nations do not permit personal data to leave the country without permission, which puts a crimp on cloud computing.
It is possible to set up a corporate data center as a cloud serving that corporation. This is popular in heavily regulated businesses, like banks, where there is some reservation about sending data to anyone (like a cloud vendor) outside the organization.
However, experts say there are many things to work out before the future of cloud computing — and the cloud's security — will be determined.
Q: How big will cloud computing become?
A: People call it a paradigm shift.
The phrase refers to a major change in the way we look at things, such as the shift from Newtonian physics to relativistic physics. The phrase is over-used, but in this case they may be on to something. Computing power could become a utility service, like electricity or drinking water, and anyone could have as much as they want at any time. (Paradigm, incidentally, is pronounced "pair-a-dime.")
Q: What runs the cloud?
A: Cloud software is commonly written in Linux.
That's because Linux is free. Running a cloud application in Windows or some other commercial operating system is possible but may involve additional license fees.
Q: Is there a dark side?
A: There's always a dark side.
The dark side of cloud computing is that you're introducing two additional potential points of failure: the cloud itself, and the network needed to reach it. Service level agreements guaranteeing uptime are cold comfort when you're getting error messages.
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