Pushing your music, photos, files and digital goodies "to the cloud" has become a common selling point. In commercials, after the pronouncement of those seemingly magical words, people are able to instantly watch their movies and listen to their music from almost anywhere.
These promises aren't false. In a world where any device with a Wi-Fi connection was plugged into the cloud, you really could access your files anywhere. The problem is that we're on the frontier of such a reality, and there are dangers — serious dangers — that we'll have to tackle alongside the strengths offered by the cloud.
Here's our forecast for the future of cloud computing.
The general thrust of cloud computing is a dream that's a while in the making. I can remember my first out-of-state business trip in the mid 1990s. I marveled at how I could log in to my company's local network connection in Houston, Texas and still access my shared drives on the server in New York.
In its simplest terms, the cloud is similar. The company network is the Internet and the server is a Web host. Of course, the network speeds are greater (by an order of magnitude), the interface is better, and the files are more fun (video, music, etc.) than what I was working with.
Web-based applications are all around us. There are Web-based word processors, image editors, games (like Microsoft's newly proposed game portal) and even professional-grade software, such as CAD. Imagine if all of the software you owned, from games to productivity suites, were all Internet-based and stored in your space in the cloud. All you would need to get to your data and your applications would be any decent computer with a browser and an Internet connection.
If all of your data is online, and all of your applications are online, why do you need to bring your computer with you anywhere? Travelers would no longer needs to lug around a laptop. You can just use whatever computer is around when you get where you're going. The same goes for business travelers, too, who could give a presentation from any computer where he or she is presenting to without fear of, say, having the wrong version of Power Point, or the need to install any software they might be demonstrating.
Hotels may start offering a computer in every room. Why not? (It worked for coffee makers.) If all of your applications are in the cloud, then the kind of computer or what applications are on it (other than a browser) are irrelevant.
The struggle used to be to put a laptop in the hands of students in impoverished regions with a price goal of under $100. Now India launches the Aakash tablet with an expected price tag of $35. The trend is moving away from the need for personal storage. Mechanical hard drives may not be replaced by solid state equivalents before the need for local storage becomes almost moot.
For users, the cloud brings convenience. For IT folks, this will mean a whole new landscape of applications, security and new ideas yet to be invented. In short, there will be lots to do and new jobs to be had in the tech and IT industries.
One thing is for sure, though: it's a whole new way to think about computing, and how we interact with our data. If the personal computer brought processing power to the average household and the smartphone put it in every pocket, cloud computing could really spread it everywhere.
With each generation, the newer technology presents a learning challenge to the previous generation. The concept of ownership without a physical presence of some kind (CD-ROM, memory stick, etc.) may be difficult for some consumers to accept. Along with new types of login and security requirements, there will be lots to learn in getting the most out of the Cloud.
It's true, without the Internet, there is no cloud. That means no files, no music, no video — nothing. Potentially, with all of an application in the cloud, it could even mean losing the ability to create new files, or at least files that aren't contain within an app. Truely cloud-based technology might be something we "grow in to" as the Wi-Fi infrastructure improves year after year. Cellular-based data communication has improved, but even at 4G speeds, it doesn't completely fulfill the bandwidth-hungry requirements the future of complete cloud computing could demand. Plus, it's expensive.
There are times I'd rather have no connection than a weak or intermittent connection, then I'd have an excuse to stand up and walk away. Trying to do work with a connection that comes and goes, or is constricted is a current frustration. Try to imagine if all of your apps as well as your data depended on that connection.
There are other contingencies, too. For instance, dropped connections could also cause data corruption. Although the likelihood of corruption from losing a connection is considerably less than off-handedly clicking off the power switch, hopefully we'll have some smarter tools and buffering (dirty word) to combat this as we become more dependent on the connection.
"If you're going to steal... steal big." As folks become accustomed to loading all of their data into the cloud, the hosts will become targets for data theft. Like a bank these hosts will have the data for multiple people and companies, and they will face new challenges as the value of the data in concentrated places increases.
This is already going on today, and will only increase as more and more data is up for grabs. Just like any arms race, our ability to combat data and identify theft has to improve, too.
In a world where hackers threaten our financial backbone, cloud computing asks that you trust everything from your corporate secrets to your tax returns to your (paid for) movie/music/software collections to the same very environment.
As we increase the infrastructure and bandwidth to accommodate the greater demands needed for true cloud computing, we also make it easier for hackers to use brute force or other hacking methods that haven't been invented yet.
Security measures such as retinal scans, thumb print scans and encryption keys may be a good first line of defense to secure the cloud. Hopefully, the new innovations will spark new means of protecting our data.
Plenty of companies suggest/push for you back up your data online. Where do you back your data up, if all of it's online? You could do the reverse and back up your data to media at your home or business. Or trust your provider's ability to perform their own hard media backups. Maybe in the true cloud computing world of the near future, you will have one provider back up your data that's hosted on another provider.
As it is, the cloud isn't a one-stop solution for storing you data, just as anyone who keeps everything on one storage drive and one drive only is rolling the dice.
It's clear that the expansion of the cloud will be both as exciting as it is scary — just like every other computing advancement has been. There was a time where folks wouldn't dream of putting their credit cards online, now we do it all the time, and we take it one step further, inventing tools such as PayPal to both protect everyone and expand payment options. Even with the risks involved, who isn't excited to see what new ideas and tools will come from this next generation computing platform?
Afraid of the cloud? In love with it? Sound off in the comments below.