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Computing In the Cloud.

Computer on a Cloud
Cloud Computing, Not.1

These days computer talk often turns to “cloud computing.” Sounds like a laptop or iPad on a plane, but It’s not. So what is it and is it right for you?

Where Is the Cloud? The “cloud” isn’t a specific place; cloud computing refers to a shared approach where your smartphone, tablet, laptop or desktop computer uses resources on a larger, remote computer, often over the internet. Your own device may be little more than a keyboard and monitor with most of the actual computing taking place on the remote machine. Google Docs, a suite of MS Office-like programs, works that way. The software and files are on Google’s servers; you access them through the internet.

Advantages. Cloud computing offers several advantages:

  • Accessible Anywhere, Anytime. Since files and software are on a central computer, they are always available so long as you can connect to that computer.
  • Lower Initial Cost. You rent rather than buy, so up-front investment is often less.
  • Lower IT Costs. The cloud-service is responsible for maintaining and updating its hardware and software and providing security.
  • Economies of Scale. Since the cloud-provider serves many clients, it often can buy in bulk and spread costs over many users.

Disadvantages. These benefits are not without their costs:

  • Connection Required. No connection, no computing; trouble if your internet service is slow or unreliable, or you frequently work in remote locations. Outages at Amazon’s cloud service several times have brought down clients’ services, including Netflix.3
  • Privacy and security. Your data are on someone else’s system. Will they protect it as carefully as you would? Will they secretly use it in a sociology experiment, as FaceBook did?4
  • Pay Forever. You pay for cloud services as long as you use them; the price may go up. If It’s difficult to move to another service, you may be locked in.
Diagram of Cloud Computing
Devices Using Software and Hardware in the "Cloud."2

The story of Danger Com­puting (real name) illustrates these risks. Danger provided cloud storage for T-Mobile's Sidekick phone, enabling users to store much more data than their phones could. Great until Danger lost the files and had no back up (some eventually were recovered). Danger is owned by Microsoft, so size is no assurance of safety.5

Is the Cloud For You? It depends on your needs and priorities. If you expect your computing requirements to grow rapidly, a cloud provider with a large network can easily provide more capacity as your business grows. On the other hand, if you want total control, the cloud is not for you.

A Wall Street Journal article6 suggests that those considering the cloud ask —

  • How much do we save, if anything?
  • How complicated is our software?
  • What are the legal issues?
  • Where are the data?
  • How accessible is it?
  • How secure is it?

The New York Times has a similar article specifically for small businesses.7

The bottom line is cloud computing is neither cumulus nor nimbus.

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  1. Cloud photo from NOAA.
  2. Diagram by Sam Johnston from Wikipedia.
  3. Brian X. Chen, "The Cloud" Challenges Amazon, N.Y. Times, December 26, 2012.
  4. In January 2012 FaceBook manipulated certain users’ news feeds to test how their posts were influenced by positive and negative items they read. Vindu Goel, Facebook Tinkers With Users’ Emotions in News Feed Experiment, Stirring Outcry, N.Y. Times June 29, 2014.
  5. Rory Cellan-Jones, The Sidekick Cloud Disaster, BBC News, October 13, 2009.
  6. Roger Plant, To Cloud, or Not to Cloud, The Wall Street Journal, April 25, 2011.
  7. David H. Freedman, Thinking About Moving to the Cloud? There Are Trade-Offs, N.Y. Times, September 21, 2011.

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