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Monday, August 2, 2010

I Got My Head In The Cloud

Every few years there’s some new catch-phrase in the computer world, and it seems you just don’t know what you’re talking about if you don’t use that catch-phrase at least twice in each sentence.  Now I’ve been in the IT field long enough to remember when e-mail was that catch-phrase; almost nobody knew what it was, exactly, but you had to at least mention it in a conversation if you were to have any credibility.

Today it seems the latest catchphrase is “cloud computing”.  Everyone wants stuff to be “in the cloud”.  And though I’ve known about the concept of cloud computing for a while now, it seems most people (even IT guys) still have no idea what it is (I think it’s because of our limited internet capabilities in South Africa – see my previous post).

So, what is cloud computing?  Well, in essence, "Cloud computing is Internet-based computing, whereby shared resources, software, and information are provided to computers and other devices on demand, like the electricity grid…” according to Wikipedia.  Yeah, that definition didn’t help me a lot either (I mean, what is “the electricity grid” anyway?!), so let me just try to explain it in my own special way.

Imagine a computer with little or no software installed.  Not much use, is it?  I mean, you need an operating system, at the very least, but even an OS isn’t much use without applications and other software.  You need a word processor, a spreadsheet application, and some other productivity-type stuff.  But all work and no play makes someone-or-other slightly boring, so you need some entertainment as well – which means that you will need to install games, video and music players, etc.  So without all of this a computer is virtually useless, isn’t it?

Well, no, not anymore.  Cloud computing is basically internet-based computing.  With everything being “in the cloud”, you can easily type your letters, do your spreadsheet calculations, watch your movies, and even play your games, on-line, with little or no software installed locally!  (And did I mention that most of it can be done FREE of charge?)

For example; you can log in to Office Live for most of your Microsoft Office needs.  You can edit Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents on-line, without paying any license fees!  Or, if you prefer Microsoft alternatives, you can go for Google Docs or ThinkFree.  Another great benefit of most of these options is that you can have your documents available to you online, so you can log in from another computer in another country and still access all of your data!

Most of the software you use regularly will either be available “in the cloud”, or have a cloud-based alternative.  This includes media players, video editors, photo editors, and virtually anything you can think of.

About the only thing I can’t think of that you can’t really do in the cloud to such a large extent is gaming.  Yes, there are many online games that DON’T require local software installation, and many of them are really quite good.  I mean, Facebook has many great games; I’m totally addicted to Bejewelled Blitz, for instance.  You can also play many old DOS-based games, and even older Nintendo and Sega games, live on the internet, using only a web browser.  There’s even an online version of Quake.  But for real hard-core gamers the options are limited; you won’t be able to play Crysis 2 in the cloud, for example.

But all in all, cloud computing is a great concept.  You can have a perfectly capable PC, running all of the software you need, without any expensive licenses.  Google are even in process of developing the Google Chromium OS (which is basically the Google Chrome browser as an operating system), designed specifically with cloud computing in mind.  Many Linux distributions are doing the same thing.  It’s a great way to resurrect your “working but old” Pentium II’s and use them productively again!  Even if you install an old version of Linux, with a web browser, you’re set to “surf the cloud”.

The only negative comment I can make about cloud computing at the moment is, once again, the pathetic state of internet access in South Africa.  I apologize for hammering on the same point again, but I just can’t think of a good reason why internet bandwidth in this country should be so expensive.

Well, anyway, that’s it for now.  Have a great week!

Lourens, out.


  1. Every cloud has a silver lining...this cannot true about bandwidth limitations in SA can it?

  2. Cloud computing, interesting, and /certainly/ a over hyped word ATM.

    It seems to me though, history is repeating itself. Clouding looks to be simply a refined and redefined version of the age old mainframe & thin clients architecture. I'm not against the concept, what the heck ever the concept is exactly [no offense to your good explanation there, but this word can be used so vaguely by people!].

    Now this whole moving stuff over to the server side and getting it through a webbrowser thing certainly has its benifits (I love GMail and how it functions as more than just email), but some things will remain client side (and I think its better that way, if not often much more efficient). The more cloudy things get, the more the crackers will get chances to hack into them...

    But a kind of 'cloud computing' that really interests me, actually the one your Wikipedia definition gives: sharing of CPU power. The Folding@Home project is an excellent example.