What the Heck Is Cloud Computing?

Updated: April 30, 2009


"Cloud computing" has replaced Web 2.0 as the IT world's newest buzzword. Thanks to the potential unlocked by virtualization technology and vast investments from major players, cloud computing is poised to lead the next revisualization of the Internet. Its influence lies in giving huge amounts of processing power to small, portable devices by crunching data and serving software from the cloud. Soon, all important documents, data and email will be saved on a virtual server, which will allow users to access that information from any location.

The most profound impact of cloud computing is the fact that it is forcing companies to change their business models. This shift has come in the form of SaaS (software-as-a-service) instead of the soon-to-be-outdated model, SaaP (software-as-a-product). No longer will you need to buy a copy of Microsoft Office off the shelf (unless Microsoft can convince you otherwise), because the cloud will be able to support programs that were installed on hard drives at a considerable price.


The Cloud Players

Google: Late last year, The New York Times reported that Google had partnered with IBM to promote cloud research by building a cloud dedicated to educating the next generation of developers. The two companies have pledged $30 million over two years for the project, which will serve six major universities: Carnegie Mellon University ; MIT ; Stanford University ; University of California, Berkeley ; University of Maryland and the University of Washington .

While cloud computing might be a new concept for the average reader of The New York Times, Google has been publicizing its activity for years. The company likely invented the term itself. "We call it cloud computing," Google CEO (chief executive officer) Eric Schmidt said in August 2006 .

Already, Google offers many small-scale, Web-based cloud-computing services. With Google Calendar, Picasa, YouTube, Gmail and Google Docs, you can store most important data on your computer online and access it from home, work or your phone. But The Wall Street Journal has predicted Google will take this initiative one step further by allowing users to save their entire hard drives on Google's cloud. MIT's Technology Review noted , though, that "Google doesn't acknowledge the existence of such a service."

The bookseller's S3 (Simple Storage Service) shows just how far the online retailer has diversified its holdings, moving into areas formerly held by IBM, Google and hardware makers. With S3, a developer can store an unlimited number of "objects" of up to 5GB each into a "bucket" located in America or Europe. This allows developers to store and share vast amounts of information.

Amazon.com's EC2 (Elastic Compute Cloud) is the cloud-computing partner to the S3 storage service. With EC2, Amazon.com can offer developers near-instant scalability. EC2 is already generating its own boutique industry with Morph eXchange , who provides an intermediate service allowing developers to design and launch Web applications without directly dealing with the cloud.

In late 2007, The New York Times' Web jockeys employed S3 and EC2 to generate PDFs of more than 11 million newspaper stories from 1851 to 1922. The raw information was more than 4TB, but once loaded into S3, the automated conversion of all 11 million PDFs took only one day and generated an additional 1.4TB of data.

Apple Inc.:
Focusing recently on its iPhone, iPod and MacBook Air product lines, Apple has let its nascent cloud-storage system, .Mac, gather some dust. Offering 1GB of storage for $100 per year is "laughable," noted Wired's Epicenter blog "when you can get double that for nothing."

An Apple/Google partnership in the cloud would solve this problem, but as of mid-February, this elusive alliance was still in the rumor stage. The two companies may be waiting for the June release of iPhone 2.0 to demonstrate how the iPhone and the cloud can work together.

Microsoft Corp.:
Like Apple, Microsoft's cloud initiative is still stuck in the rumor mill. Since the beginning of March, gossip on both sides of the Atlantic has suggested that Microsoft will soon offer a series of global datacenters to power MS Cloud. Described by The Register as "offensive," the datacenter build-out allegedly includes the construction of two dozen 500,000-square-foot facilities around the world. The rumors fail to mention how these monsters will be powered, but without renewable sources of energy Microsoft will be burning lots of coal to keep its cloud afloat.

Meanwhile, Microsoft's current cloud offering, Windows Live, is not getting high marks. Giga Omni Media Inc .'s Stacey Higginbotham described it as "less a cloud strategy than a layer of fog over the multibillion-dollar packaged-software franchises that keeps Microsoft going."

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