Industry Forecast: Cloudy

by John W. Stout

It is very likely that you have at least heard mention of the cloud or cloud computing. Although it sounds mysterious—even ominous—it isn’t the least bit complicated. In fact, it’s quite likely that you have been using the cloud for some time whether or not you knew it.

There are a number of online references that will help you understand more about the cloud. The common thread of these references is that “cloud computing” is a buzzword. In other words, it's another clever computer industry marketing effort, this time aimed at getting people used to the idea of software as a service: Web-based applications and information storage on remote servers run by another organization. This is in contrast to our usual experience wherein we purchase applications and store our proprietary data on our own machines.

This is quite similar to an earlier concept, in which a company puts its data on servers and permits access to that data via a “thin client” over the Web.

I won’t address the ethical and trust ramifications of putting your proprietary data on a server owned and run by someone else. That’s a topic for another article.

If you want a hands-on introduction to the cloud, Google is a good choice to get that experience. It is no surprise that Google is a major promoter of cloud services because the basis of its business is to swiftly parse through terabytes of Web data cached on its servers and accurately supply search results millions of times every day.

While Google offers much more for businesses with their Google Apps service, the extremely popular Gmail is the perfect introduction for anyone wanting to explore what the Cloud can do. Google has taken the idea of webmail to a whole new level. Your account will never again reach its limit, nor will you have to fret about that important e-mail that you deleted months ago, because with 7 gigabytes of storage and growing, space is not lacking.

This application of scaling across hardware is only the beginning of where this Cloud can travel. With Google Apps one can integrate a variety of online software applications directly into a company by associating its Web domain with Google's collection of access-anywhere applications: Gmail, Google Docs, Google Talk, Google Calendar, and your very own wiki with Google Sites. Not only can you share and be connected globally with everyone in your business, but you have complete access to all this data using the same familiar interface at work, at home, at the airport, or anywhere you have Internet access.

While Google gets the focus in this article, I should also point out that cloud computing now has the attention of many computer software and hardware vendors. At the recent Professional Developers Conference, Microsoft unveiled Windows Azure, which is best understood as a service that enables businesses to deploy Windows applications in the cloud. Other vendors such as HP, SAP and IBM have their own cloud initiatives.

For the developer community, companies such as Mosso.com and Developer.Force.com offer services which allow your Web site or application to expand across their resources based on user demand, not on a fixed contract. Gone are the worries over "how much bandwidth and computing cycles should I plan for?" A developer can focus on creating an application, getting it online and promoting it. From there the consumer will consume, and the Cloud will produce at will, without interruption.

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