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Head In The Clouds June 19, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Technology.
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The latest rage in the world of IT is “cloud computing.”  The “cloud” is the internet, often represented as an all-connected puffy blob in countless network diagrams and PowerPoint presentations.

Cloud computing moves your applications away from your local servers and desktops and houses them on servers located in the cloud.  Managed by great, benevolent entities like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft, your systems will run better and faster. As butterflies dance around your worry-free head, you’ll be able to focus on your “core competencies,” whatever they may be.

Hmmm.  Centralized computing services with local display technology.  Where have I heard of this before?  Oh, that’s right!  We used to call it “mainframe computing!”  And that local display technology?  A 3270 terminal!  In the ’80s, we built dedicated display devices called X Terminals and used them to connect to centralized servers, where we would run our applications.  In the ’90s, we deployed “thin client” devices, moving the storage to the server but shifting the computing power to the device.

Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.

Still using any of these?  Of course not.  If we have learned one thing in the past 50 years of computing, it is that users demand more and more local power, control, and capability.  With that power they will do new and unforeseen things that will dramatically alter how we use information.  Every effort to pull that power in, to restrict what people do, has failed.  Trying to pull applications off the desktop and run them remotely may be possible technologically, but it will never succeed socially.

I say this even as I continuously try to standardize and manage a far-flung IT infrastructure for my company.  The difference?  I accept that there will be local applications and capabilities.  My standards seek to embrace and manage that local element, instead of trying to pull it back and eliminate it.

Don’t misunderstand: you can shift certain services and capabilities to the cloud with great success.  My company has outsourced several business processes to external service providers.  My personal data at home is backed up to an external service called Mozy, which works very well.  This blog runs on WordPress.com, instead of some server I manage myself.  My personal email is externally hosted as well.

The idea of moving all of my personal data to the cloud and accessing my applications there is incomprehensible.  Imagine doing everything (everything!) at the speed of your current internet connection.  I have several thousand photos on my laptop at home.  I manage them with Adobe Photoshop Elements, which provides a fast, high-fidelity interface that lets me flip through hundreds of pictures in a few seconds.  Ever tried that on the web?  Go to Flickr and try to preview a few hundred pictures.  That’s an enjoyable experience.  Now extend that to hundreds of documents that you’ll want to edit and manage.  No way.  Word and Excel are slow enough running locally; they (or their equivalent) will never be better at the other end of a long wire.

The speed problems aren’t the real problem. People like to use their computers anywhere, anytime.  High-speed connections are not pervasive, and your cloud computing experience is only pleasant at very high speeds.  It stops entirely when the connection breaks.  Cloud proponents are struggling to provide an offline equivalent of their services so you can keep working while disconnected.  Here’s a thought: since they cannot predict what you might want to do while offline, you’ll probably want to keep a copy of everything you need on your local machine.  You know, just in case.  And you’ll probably need to keep copies of the applications as well, so you can access your data.  After all, data is useless without the application.  Let’s see: local storage, local data, local application, local display and keyboard…  it’s like your own personal copy of the cloud, but you can use it anywhere, anytime.  We’ll call it… the Personal Computer!

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