Cloud computing has been with us since the dawn of the global Internet. We use cloud computing anytime we use services and storage over the Internet. The cloud refers to the Internet, the vast network of servers, software and data whose location is irrelevant (it is somewhere in the cloud) but which we can access through the ubiquitous browser. If you are using webmail (e.g., hotmail, gmail, yahoo mail), networking through Facebook, uploading pictures and videos to Picasa, Flickr or YouTube, or using applications like Google Apps, you are using the "cloud" to store and access data.
But these basic services were Cloud 1.0. We are now witnessing the rapid emergence of Cloud 2.0, with its unique characteristics.
One such characteristic is storage. The current size of the Internet — how many bytes it takes up — is estimated at 10 million terabytes. Because of its exponential growth, scalable storage and faster data access have become critical. This is the reason why, for instance, Hewlett-Packard (HP) recently paid $2.4 billion for specialist storage supplier 3Par, which was 325 times more than its actual value! HP's acquisition (Dell also wanted 3Par but lost in the bidding war) is a reflection of the importance of storage in cloud computing architectures.
Another is security. For enterprises to be confident in moving workloads to the cloud, security has to be paramount. Vendors are confident that with the current state of cloud technology, they can convince consumers that storing their data on the Internet cloud will be safer, better and more secure than leaving it on the hard drive of their laptop/PC.
The Cloud Security Alliance (CSA – http://www.cloudsecurityalliance.org/) is a non-profit organisation that promotes the use of best practices for security assistance within cloud computing. Some of these include protection against abuse of cloud services, insecure interfaces, malicious insiders (remember WikiLeaks?) and data loss and leakage.
There is now not just one type of cloud but several because of diverging and increasingly complex client requirements. They are best summarised by the cloud's three service models.
1) Software as a Service (SaaS). This is what cloud computing used to be known as before. Example: salesforce.com (www.salesforce.com).
2) Platform as a Service (PaaS): Application Development platform running in provider's infrastructure. Example: Windows Azure (http://www.microsoft.com/windowsazure/)
3) Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS): Fundamental computing resources made available to develop operating systems and applications. Example: Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) (http://aws.amazon.com/ec2/).
While the technical details may seem intimidating, the advantages of cloud computing are clear: let the cloud vendors handle the software, the data, the platform and the infrastructure and let the clients do what they do best: focus on their core businesses.
Cloud computing will probably become real for most users when Google releases it Chrome Operating System (not to be confused with the Chrome browser) sometime in the middle of this year. This thin, lightweight OS may lift computing out of yesterday's desktop model into tomorrow's cloud. The Linux-based OS will boot directly into the Chrome browser. Google claims that it boots in seconds and resumes from sleep almost instantaneously. (Contrast this with how long it takes to boot a Windows machine, for instance, and all the different ways in which the OS can become corrupt, leading to extended downtime.)
But here is the Google claim that has drawn scepticism: the user experience of Chrome OS will be the same, that is, as rich, as a PC running Windows or a Mac running OS X.
If so, we can dispense with any OS on local disks. The Chrome OS will run software stored on the Internet, in this case, on the Chrome Web Store, rather than on the hard drive of the user's computer.
But will this really happen? Based on the success of its Android OS for mobile phones, some technologists feel that Google will make good on its promise. But they forget that not all Google products have been successful. Google Wave, launched with great fanfare in 2009 as the ultimate Email killer, turned out to be a flop. Google Buzz, the latest attempt by the company to force its way into social networking, was also a dud.
But there is no question that cloud computing is on the verge of a breakthrough. Why should the cloud host only applications? Why not the operating system as well? The ease and simplicity it will bring to users is incalculable. No more worry about automatic software updates, data encryption, security, troubleshooting.
Besides, even if Google cannot deliver on its promise in the first version, perhaps it, and other companies driven by the same vision, can do so in the third or the fourth version.
Cloud computing will make computers lighter and nimbler. It can free us from worrying about the tool to focus on our business and passion. Traditional and expensive PCs and Macs will cease to be mainstream devices. They will not disappear but more and more, we will rely on simpler devices like iPad, smartphones and Web OS-based netbook.
Is computing nirvana at hand? Will 2011 be the Year of the Cloud?
Dr. Hasan ZIllur Rahim, an educator and technologist in California's Silicon Valley, is eager to create private schools for the poor in Bangladesh, with the Web and mobile learning as enabling tools.