A quick definition for those who may not be familiar with the terminology. Cloud computing is a system whereby data storage, applications and to some degree processing power are freed from local constraints and are available via servers or computers elsewhere in the world. The need for huge local drives is negated, those space-hogging office suites no longer sit on local machines and the option of an extra power boost when needed is within our reach.

Using it already

cloudMost of us are already using cloud-based services to some degree – how many of us use web-based email services or online photo sharing or share ideas on forums and discussion networks? How many are freed from accessing such resources using only one device – we can now get our emails, chat to friends and view media online using computers, laptops, netbooks, mobile phones and PDAs.

Such an infrastructure offers numerous benefits to individual users and businesses alike. Sharing and collaboration is appealing to all, most of us will already be familiar with manipulating a document, video or image file with friends or colleagues without the need for downloading onto local machines. Recently Google’s Wave has taken this further by adding a real-time element where collaborators can add, update or otherwise manipulate a shared document on-the-fly and watch others on the team do the same.

serversWe are encouraged not to think about where in the world such files and services exist in real terms but just to accept that they are available whenever and wherever we need them. The cloud concept has been compared with the rollout of grid-based electricity over a century ago where businesses and consumers no longer needed to produce their own power but could simply plug into a huge network. Similarly, cloud computing sees users plugging into services and solutions as and when needed.

For some of us oldies it represents a bit of a return to familiar ground. When I began my career in computing I would access a dumb terminal linked to a central server via a network of routers and switches. The terminal was a low power, low tech input device with all the software, processing power and storage taken care of elsewhere. As computers developed, much of the once remote solutions moved closer to the user. With cloud computing we see the return of the remote model where the user interface is little more than a glorified input device and all of the real work is undertaken elsewhere.

The voice of caution

workSuch a system has its disadvantages of course, not knowing or even caring where actual data is stored leads to security and privacy concerns and perhaps even laxity. It’s also worrying from a data integrity point of view, when you’re not responsible for backing up your own data who do you blame when it goes missing? And there are other rumblings of discontent.

In 2008, founder of the GNU Project Richard Stallman said of the cloud, “It’s stupidity. It’s worse than stupidity: it’s a marketing hype campaign”, warning that such a system would simply trap people into using increasingly expensive locked and proprietary systems. Sentiments which were echoed in a recent article in the UK’s Guardian, warning that advocates are not being completely open about the incredible money-making potential the cloud offers suppliers. Recent vandalism of fiber optic lines in California prompted some to reinforce rising fears about our increasing dependence on this kind of service and application provision.

I’m a frequent user of cloud technology myself and enjoy its many benefits. I am also regularly reminded of its drawbacks (on the few occasions I have been without a broadband connection or a colleague has accidentally deleted an important file for instance) so am, and advise others to be, cautious about its exclusive use. But with Google’s Chrome operating system set to up the ante somewhat next year as it’s adopted by more and more hardware manufacturers, it certainly looks like life in the cloud is set to take on more and more importance in our increasingly tech-centric, online lives. Do you greet life in the cloud with open enthusiasm or hesitant distrust?