Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Cloud computing

Cloud computing is the buzz word of the day, mainly because Bill Gates announced that it would be the future focus of Microsoft. But cloud computing is just a new word for an old idea. It simply means computing in the Internet, a cloud in the sky instead of your desktop.

About ten years ago when the Internet was getting very versatile and popular, there were proposals for better and more powerful ASP (application service providers), in addition to ISP (Internet service providers) and CSP (content service providers). As a result, there were business challenges for the computer industry on the specifications of personal computers. While Sun Computer thought personal computers would shrink to having barebone functions and use the Internet extensively for almost all applications, IBM and some major manufacturers said that users would want a powerful personal computer, if just for their ego. The dream of Sun Computer did not materialize. First, the Internet bandwidth was not sufficient at that time to handle heavy traffic comfortably. Second, a barebone computer market would be a blow to many manufacturers which depended on expensive personal computer models.

The situation is slowly changing with more service providers offering various online applications on the Internet, and the gradual increase in the bandwidth of the Internet in many cities. The OLPC (One laptop per child) project raised the popularity of cheap personal computers, with many services provided through an Internet browser. The worry on the collapse of the personal computer industry also diminishes because people want both the convenience of cloud computing and the crunching power of their high-end computers. Recently, BBC published an article on harnessing the power of clouds, summing up the up-to-date development and the future of cloud computing. You may wish to take a look on the latest thinking.

Imagine that all you need is a device with an Internet browser and Internet connection capability, which can be a personal computer, laptop, mobile phone, interactive television set, portable media player, or anything that can connect to the Internet. You can do all the things usually done on your desktop including email, word processing, communication, database management, photo editing, music editing, video editing without having any application software on your device. All your data are portable and are available anywhere whenever you can connect to the Internet. There will not be any chore in buying and upgrading software, backing up data and maintaining notes and schedules. You no longer need to possess physically the computer software and your own data. They are in the cloud and are available anywhere whenever you want them, with an Internet connection.

Besides the convenience of just-in-time software and data storage, cloud computing can also provide processing power beyond that of a personal computer. Heavy loading applications such as voice recognition, optical recognition and video editing and rendering can be performed by a data centre through online connection. There are services which accept your upload of audio, images and video and process them for you. These data are converted into a searchable database which can help organize your memory and your life.

Security concern is a major issue for cloud computing. We heard many horror stories lately on the leakage of personal data and confidential information through Foxy, a file sharing network. Someone carelessly uploaded secret files to the sharing area. More scary, there were rumours that computers infected by a certain virus were sending out secret files without its knowing it. Data security is a forever struggle in all areas of data storage and transmission. There are always bad elements aiming at your valuables no matter they are in cyberspace, your office, your home or even in a safe. While data in cyberspace, when targetted and compromised, could be affected very quickly, the cyberspace also provides the most comprehensive protection if properly managed. Whether data in the cloud are more secure than those in the harddisk or on paper file is for each of us to judge individually.

Data backup is also an important issue. It has to be balanced with convenience. When the connection to the cloud collapses, easy access to data goes with it. I usually back up my essential data once a day. It takes less than a minute. I admit that it is not perfect because if the cloud fails I will lose the work of the day, being only able to salvage data from last night's backup. I however consider it a reasonable arrangement.

Below are some useful services already in the cloud at present and the number is growing.

Apple Mobile Me - This service synchronizes e-mails, photos and contacts between multiple devices. Your desktop, laptop and mobile device will stay in sync so long as they have access to Apple's servers in the cloud.

Google Docs - Google Docs has an intuitive interface and consists of applications normally associated with the desktop: a word processor, spreadsheet and presentation designer. Documents can be saved to the cloud or to your own machine. Multiple users can work on the same document from different computers with changes taking effect almost instantly.

Adobe Acrobat - This attractive online word processor has cloud storage space for your documents. It also includes collaboration tools and an online PDF converter.

Jooce - Jooce is a flash based desktop environment aimed at users of internet cafes. Dragging a file onto the desktop actually uploads it to the cloud giving you easy access from any internet-enabled PC.

Blender 3D - Sun's data centres are available for hire by the hour to power on-demand cloud services. Used mainly for processing scientific data, the servers can also be used for rendering animations via the open source Blender 3D software on the desktop.

Evernote - Use your phone to take a snapshot of anything you need to remember then upload it to Evernote's servers in the cloud. Any text in the images is scanned and indexed to create a searchable database.

Live Search - Microsoft's search engine for mobile phones makes heavy use of cloud processing to bring a rich experience to searching on handheld devices.

Twitterfone - This service uses speech recognition in the cloud to convert voice messages into "tweets" on the social network Twitter.

Blist - A database application with an attractive interface, how-to videos and innovative drag and drop design. Once created, your database can be shared with other users of the site.

Picnik - This is photo editing in the cloud. Upload images from your local machine or import them from another site such as Flickr or Facebook. The site's colourful buttons mask powerful photo retouching tools. It is also possible to add text, shapes or a frame to your creation.

Adobe Photoshop Express - Another photo editor which makes good use of the cloud to store your pics. Tools for editing photographs will be familiar to users of Adobe's industry standard Photoshop image editor.

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