Imagine the amount of fat, bloated programs that hog your computer’s storage and it only seems to grow. Or those wonderful digital cameras and digital video images you have been collecting for the last couple of years. And you wouldn’t want to forget about videos, podcast and other rich media that you just want to hold on to like a digital packrat. So much so that it seems we have to yearly buy larger hard drives, more memory sticks or add portable storage devices to hold all our files like the 21st century version of a time capsule. When it comes to an organization, especially a large one, those costs in hardware and software all translate to money. Well along came Cloud Computing and unless you have been paying close attention you may have never heard the term, but you might have been doing it for a number of years.
Cloud Computing is best explained as IT capabilities offered as a service. The Cloud is a long-used word describing the Internet, but when used with Computing some believe the term is not often understood. To add further confusion, Cloud Computing is similar, but distinctly different from another concept called Software-as-a-Service (SaaS). In comparing the two, an April 2008 Gartner report differentiates the two as “cloud computing refers to the bigger picture…basically the broad concept of using the internet to allow people to access technology-enabled services. SaaS is software that’s owned, delivered, and managed remotely by one or more providers.”
I don’t do any of that, so how the heck can I be using this stuff, you wonder? Well, to make it easier to point out and identify, Hotmail, YouTube and Photobucket are typical Cloud Computing services. You, the user, actually place your email, video or digital images in “the Cloud” by uploading them to a site hosted and administered by a third party. No fuss, no muss. You don’t have to install any hardware or software, just click a button and the text or is placed in the Cloud, along with the storage burden. Besides the obvious space savings, another advantage is that the files (or emails) are available to you from anywhere you have access, at home, at work, or while on the road.
SaaS is no slouch, either. Imagine not having to pay the costs of installing Microsoft Word, Powerpoint or Adobe Acrobat on your machine, but still having all that capability? One of my favorite SaaS sites which allow me to write documents and make presentations from my web browser is Zoho (zoho.com) and they are all Microsoft compatible. I also use Scribd (scribd.com) to convert my documents to a cross-platform format file (pdf) that can be viewed by PC and Mac users alike on the web or downloaded to my own storage device. For work I can use AKO for email or DCO Adobe Connect for collaboration, all services that I use but don’t own. Imagine a reduction of the site licenses, seat space and the like if industry and government were to solely use Cloud and SaaS applications?
According to Mike Nelson, visiting professor for the Center for Communication, Culture and Technology at Georgetown University and a former tech policy advisor for U.S. President Bill Clinton, Cloud computing is “as important as the Web was 15 years ago. We don’t have any idea of how important it is, and we don’t really have any clue as to how it’s going to be used.” Just think of what you use online, booking an airline, mapping out your travel route, banking, or any of the other services your perform in the Cloud, you can understand the depth of capabilities-based computing.
Microsoft SaaS architecture expert Gianpaolo Carraro noted that “…in 2008 SaaS … will grow faster inside the corporate boundaries than outside.” When thinking of the enormity of managing an enterprise domain like within the NIPRnet (and by extension all military networks) consider the burden that organizations are under for software upgrades, adding patch fixes and providing IT support. One can only begin to imagine the savings in time, people, and equipment in an Enterprise-wide approach to Cloud Computing and SaaS applications. That is not even speculating on the effect to industry and the individual.
But in this era of increased security it goes without saying that securing that data will be of great concern. A recent IDG News Service article by Grant Gross notes “Cloud computing will soon become an area of hot debate in Washington, D.C., with policy makers debating issues such as the privacy and security of data in the cloud.” Ari Schwartz, vice president and chief operating officer of the Center for Democracy and Technology notes that “despite the growing number of people using cloud services such as hosted e-mail and online photo storage, many consumers don’t understand the privacy and security implications.”
Galen Gruman summed it up best in “What Cloud Computing Really Means” by noting that “Cloud computing comes into focus only when you think about what IT always needs: a way to increase capacity or add capabilities on the fly without investing in new infrastructure, training new personnel, or licensing new software. Cloud computing encompasses any subscription-based or pay-per-use service that, in real time over the Internet, extends IT’s existing capabilities.” For the end-user, it just makes good sense.