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What is Cloud Computing?

Examining and Defining Cloud Computing

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Cloud computing concept sketched on blackboard
Cristian Baitg / E+ / Getty Images

Cloud Computing is a term that is often bandied about the web these days and often attributed to different things that -- on the surface -- don't seem to have that much in common. So just what is Cloud Computing? I've heard it called a service, a platform, and even an operating system. Some even link it to such concepts as grid computing -- which is a way of taking many different computers and linking them together to form one very big computer.

A basic definition of cloud computing is the use of the Internet for the tasks you perform on your computer. The "cloud" represents the Internet.

Cloud Computing is a Service

The simplest thing that a computer does is allow us to store and retrieve information. We can store our family photographs, our favorite songs, or even save movies on it. This is also the most basic service offered by cloud computing.

Flickr is a great example of cloud computing as a service. While Flickr started with an emphasis on sharing photos and images, it has emerged as a great place to store those images. In many ways, it is superior to storing the images on your computer.

First, Flickr allows you to easily access your images no matter where you are or what type of device you are using. While you might upload the photos of your vacation to Greece from your home computer, you can easily access them from your laptop while on the road or even from your iPhone while sitting in your local coffee house.

Second, Flickr lets you share the images. There's no need to burn them to a compact disc or save them on a flash drive. You can just send someone your Flickr address.

Third, Flickr provides data security. If you keep your photos on your local computer, what happens if your hard drive crashes? You'd better hope you backed them up to a CD or a flash drive! By uploading the images to Flickr, you are providing yourself with data security by creating a backup on the web. And while it is always best to keep a local copy -- either on your computer, a compact disc or a flash drive -- the truth is that you are far more likely to lose the images you store locally than Flickr is of losing your images.

This is also where grid computing comes into play. Beyond just being used as a place to store and share information, cloud computing can be used to manipulate information. For example, instead of using a local database, businesses could rent CPU time on a web-based database.

The downside? It is not all clear skies and violin music. The major drawback to using cloud computing as a service is that it requires an Internet connection. So, while there are many benefits, you'll lose them off if you are cut off from the Web.

Cloud Computing is a Platform

The web is the operating system of the future. While not exactly true -- we'll always need a local operating system -- this popular saying really means that the web is the next great platform.

What's a platform? It is the basic structure on which applications stand. In other words, it is what runs our apps. Windows is a platform. The Mac OS is a platform. But a platform doesn't have to be an operating system. Java is a platform even though it is not an operating system.

Through cloud computing, the web is becoming a platform. With trends such as Office 2.0, we are seeing more and more applications that were once the province of desktop computers being converted into web applications. Word processors like Buzzword and office suites like Google Docs are slowly becoming as functional as their desktop counterparts and could easily replace software such as Microsoft Office in many homes or small offices.

But cloud computing transcends Office 2.0 to deliver applications of all shapes and sizes from web mashups to Facebook applications to web-based massively multiplayer online role-playing games. With new technologies that help web applications store some information locally -- which allows an online word processor to be used offline as well -- and a new browser called Chrome to push the envelope, Google is a major player in turning cloud computing into a platform.

Cloud Computing and Interoperability

A major barrier to cloud computing is the interoperability of applications. While it is possible to insert an Adobe Acrobat file into a Microsoft Word document, things get a little bit stickier when we talk about web-based applications.

This is where some of the most attractive elements to cloud computing -- storing the information on the web and allowing the web to do most of the 'computing' -- becomes a barrier to getting things done. While we might one day be able to insert our Google Docs word processor document into our Google Docs spreadsheet, things are a little stickier when it comes to inserting a Buzzword document into our Google Docs spreadsheet.

Ignoring for a moment that Google probably doesn't want you to have the ability to insert a competitor's document into their spreadsheet, this creates a ton of data security issues. So not only would we need a standard for web 'documents' to become web 'objects' capable of being generically inserted into any other web document, we'll also need a system to maintain a certain level of security when it comes to this type of data sharing.

Possible? Certainly, but it isn't anything that will happen overnight.

What is Cloud Computing?

This brings us back to the initial question. What is cloud computing? It is the process of taking the services and tasks performed by our computers and bringing them to the web.

What does this mean to us?

With the "cloud" doing most of the work, this frees us up to access the "cloud" however we choose. It could be a super-charged desktop PC designed for high-end gaming, or a "thin client" laptop running the Linux operating system with an 8 gig flash drive instead of a conventional hard drive, or even an iPhone or a Blackberry.

We can also get at the same information and perform the same tasks whether we are at work, at home, or even a friend's house. Not that you would want to take a break between rounds of Texas Hold'em to do some work for the office -- but the prospect of being able to do it is pretty cool.

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