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Forecast: Cloudy
By Dan Naumovich

The expression "walking around with your head in the clouds" is used to describe a person lost in a perpetual fog of revelry. Such people, while usually harmless, tend to be unreliable.

Clouds also bring tidings of bad luck. Think of Pigpen from the "Peanuts" comic strip, with his black cloud lingering ever-presently overhead.

So perhaps "cloud" isn't the best word to describe a concept that some believe is on its way to changing desktop computing as we know it. When it comes to technology, the average user already has experienced his share of bad luck and unreliability.

No more hard drive?
I had the opportunity to fully immerse myself in the cloud computing experience when I was selected earlier this year to participate in the testing of Google Chrome OS, a lightweight operating system. I filled out an application, and a couple of months later, a free notebook that runs the operating system arrived on my doorstep.

The cloud is just a fluffy word for Internet. The term dates back to earlier days in network design to differentiate the Internet from those networks that are neatly defined and controlled by those who administer them.

What the cloud means to us non-techy types is a new way of operating. We're used to completing tasks with software that's installed on a computer's hard drive. That's also where we load and store our stuff - all the pictures, videos, music and documents that build up over time and force us to upgrade computers every couple of years to one with a bigger hard drive and more memory.

With cloud computing, all of this stuff will live on the Internet.Most people already do this, at least to a certain extent. We upload photos to Facebook or Shutterfly and trust that they're going to be there when we need them. In April, Amazon began offering 5GB of free online storage to anyone who has an account with them, their hope being that people will use it to store their Amazon-purchased music.

But we're going to be asked to do a lot more on the cloud than just put our stuff there. It's where we'll create and edit documents and spreadsheets. It's where we'll manage our finances and appointments. Pretty much any piece of software currently running from your PC or notebook, or at least its equivalent, will be available online. And you won't need a hard drive.

A Web designer friend predicts that once high-powered, specialized software - such as Photoshop - successfully migrates to a cloud setting, then the hard drive will soon enough go the way of the floppy drive. It's not difficult to envision that day.

So far, largely reliable
Supercomputers can cost millions of dollars and have traditionally only been available to researchers and engineers in the upper reaches of industry and academia. Today, Amazon has the 231st fastest supercomputer in the world, and it is available to users online on a pay-as-you-go basis. Researcher Eric Schadt has made groundbreaking discoveries in the genetic basis of diseases such as diabetes and obesity, and many believe he is the most brilliant scientist alive. He uses the Amazon supercomputer to crunch millions of dollars worth of data while he's traveling. If he has enough faith in the cloud to use it while leading a new revolution in biology, then certainly a graphic designer working at a fashion magazine can adapt to it when removing crow's feet from aging actresses' cover shots.

There is a risk, however. If a cloud goes down, a situation that Amazon experienced in late April, then you'll be without your stuff until things are up and running again. Popular and strategically important cloud servers also could be a target of dastardly hackers. But that's really no different than the dangers you face on a PC with a malfunctioning hard drive or a bad case of malware. And Amazon has a vested interest in getting its system up and running quickly - after the recent outage the company immediately vowed to make changes in its processes and to improve communications when glitches do occur. Tech support from PC manufacturers tends to operate with a bit less urgency.

Test drive
So what's it like working in the cloud, you may ask? When I booted up my new Google notebook for the first time - correction; when I turned it on, no time-draining booting was required - the Chrome browser immediately opened. I tried to minimize it to see what features were on the desktop, but soon realized that the browser is the desktop. It was all about navigating.

The culture shock of cloud computing wasn't all that shocking for me because I'd been migrating there for years. I'd traded in Outlook and Office for Gmail and Google Docs long ago. Just about everything I do as a freelance writer can be done with Web-based applications - from researching and writing to marketing and accounting. Since all of the apps I use are free, it also helps to keep down overhead.

Granted, I didn't have access to my music on iTunes, but it only makes me dream of the day when I'm no longer a slave to Apple's clunky music application.

The big drawback, and the one that will surely slow the adoption rate of cloud computing, is what happens when I pack my Chrome notebook and take it out on the town. Without a wireless connection, it's nothing but a paperweight.

It is possible to connect the notebook through a 3G network, but at the risk of racking up massive data charges. Until the world is blanketed with free and accessible wireless coverage, instead of random hot spots, cloud computing probably will be challenged in its bid at universal dominance.

Yet you shouldn't let that cause you to keep your feet firmly planted on the ground. New and exciting things are happening in the cloud, and since many of them are being offered free of charge, it's definitely worth having a look around.

 

Story published Friday, July 1, 2011 ( Volume 6, Number 4 )

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