The emergence of very large “data farms” — specialized data centers that host thousands of servers — has created a surplus of computing resources that has come to be called the cloud. Growing out of research in grid computing, cloud computing transforms once-expensive resources like disk storage and processing cycles into a readily available, cheap commodity. Development platforms layered onto the cloud infrastructure enable thin-client, web-based applications for image editing, word processing, social networking, and media creation. Many of us use the cloud, or cloud-based applications, without even being aware of it. Advances in computer science to ensure redundancy and protection from natural disasters have led to data being shared across many different hosting facilities. Improved infrastructure has made the cloud robust and reliable; as usage grows, the cloud is fundamentally changing our notions of computing and communication.
Perhaps some clarification might help in understanding this trend. With all the talk of “data farms” and “development platforms layered onto the cloud infrastructure,” cloud computing simply refers to the use of Internet-based (called the "cloud") software and storage. The essence of cloud computing means you can create and store content (documents, images, and so on) on the web rather than on your computer using web-based software rather than software installed on your local computer.
Cloud computing incorporates the concept of software as a service (SaaS), Web 2.0 and other recent, technology trends where the common theme is reliance on the Internet for access to computing power and meeting your computing needs. The best know example of cloud computing is Google Apps which provides common business applications online that are accessed using a web browser. The products created by Google Apps are documents stored online, not on your local hard drive (although those documents may be downloaded and used locally or distributed, just as you would any other document).
Additional examples of cloud computing include:
- Free online storage sites such as those listed at http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/free_online_storage_services.php
- Photo storage and sharing (see Flickr at http://www.flickr.com).
- Video storage and sharing (see YouTube at http://www.youtube.com).
- Photo and video editing applications (see http://www.splashup.com for photos and http://www.jaycut.com for videos).
- Personal online journaling (see Blogger at http://www.blogger.com).
- Publishing of presentations and slide shows (see http://www.slideshare.net or http://www.sliderocket.com).
- Online citation generation and management software such as Zotero (see http://www.zotero.org/). Zotero is an automatic citation capture tool that works in your browser (only Firefox at this time) and enables you to annotate, export, and grab meta-data on resources that you may want to cite later (supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and George Mason University).
An interesting side effect of cloud computing is the proposition that telecommuting is “dead” and superseded by a growing cadre of Cloudworkers. For an interesting view, check out the Cloudworker’s Blog at http://www.ribbonfarm.com/2008/10/23/the-cloudworkers-creed/.
One negative of cloud computing is the fact that (in the words of the Horizon Report 2009) “entrusting your work and data to the cloud is also a commitment of trust that the service provider will continue to be there, even in face of changing market and other conditions.” In other words, what happens if the “cloud vendor” ceases to exist? Data security is another issue: how safe and private is your data.
These issues, for many institutions of higher education, are superseded by the cost issue. Cloud computing applications are typically free.