Monday, May 24, 2010

A Cloudy Future for Personal Computing

A few weeks ago I wrote about the proliferation of world wide computer networks and how they have both improved the services that we use every day and also provide ample opportunity for hackers and other miscreants to disrupt these systems. For better or worse, the trend of concentrating data and computing power on large networked servers located at strategic locations is exploding. The phenomenon is called “Cloud Computing.”

Once home and office computers were designed to handle all of your tasks with internal computational power and the data storage housed within your machine. Ads for new computers touted large capacity disk drives and faster processing power. Today you will see advertised netbooks, smart phones and other devices with relatively small internal storage capacity and modest internal processing power because the programs and data are not stored on the actual machine. Rather, the data are sent to the “cloud” via the internet and the actual programs are running on remote computers.

The benefits of cloud computing are many. First, since all your data, i.e. documents, pictures, videos, addresses and calendars, are not stored solely on your machine but are sent to the cloud, the data is much less prone to loss. A recent study found that fewer than 10% of home computer users back up their data on a regular basis. Since the weakest component in most computers is the disk drive, it is inevitable that you will loose your data if it is not backed up regularly. With cloud computing the data is sent to servers that are redundant and backed up constantly, and the data is safe.

It is not only data that can be stored on the cloud, programs too can be stored there and actually run remotely. Since the size and complexity of these programs is irrelevant to the capacity of your machine, they can provide many more features. Also, they can be continuously updated and improved without the need for sending updates to millions of computers.

Finally, while any data on the net is susceptible to hackers, the operators of these cloud datacenters are much more adroit at foiling these intrusions than most of us mere mortals. While it is not impossible for hackers to retrieve your private data from the cloud, it is very unlikely. A good hacker is more likely to get information from the computer on your desk than she can from a secure databank.

The new version of Microsoft Office was just released and one of the touted features is ease of using cloud computing. Since documents can now be sent to the cloud, collaboration is made easy. Several people, separated by thousands of miles, can work on the same documents and presentations in real time.

Google, Microsoft and others offer free or almost free cloud data storage. You can see an example at There you can sign up for free storage of up to 35 mb of information.

As networks, both wired and wireless, get faster and faster and access is more ubiquitous, look for cloud computing to become the standard.

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