Monday, November 15, 2010

More "Clouds" on the Computer Horizon

It is getting cloudier these days. Don’t look for any heavy rains to quench our parched lawns but you may see some major changes in the way you access, use, and store information on your home and/or office computers or many other digital devices. I first discussed cloud computing in this column about six months ago. Since then the trend of migrating data, once stored on drives within your computer, to the cloud continues to accelerate.

At one point home and office computers were designed to handle all of your tasks with internal computational power. The data was in your machine. Computers were touted as having large capacity disk drives and faster processing power. Today you will see advertised laptops, netbooks, smart phones and other devices with relatively small internal storage capacity and modest internal processing power. This is possible because your programs and data are not stored on your machine. Rather, the data are sent to the cloud via the internet and the actual programs are running on very large computer servers located at datacenters around the world.

There is a famous quote by Thomas Watson, the former Chairman of IBM. In 1943 he said "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers." In the years following that statement he was roundly ridiculed as computers became ubiquitous companions to most every facet of modern life. In retrospect, he may have been right on target.
What we are seeing today might be more than five large computers serving the world’s
needs, but for sure the trend is fewer “real” computers and millions of portable devices connected to them.

A few weeks ago, Steve Jobs, the flamboyant Founder and CEO of Apple held a press conference to release a new model of the MacBook Air. This newest laptop offering is less than an inch thick and weighs about the same as most fast food meals. This powerful but svelte machine from Apple has neither a hard drive nor any type of optical disc drive. You can’t insert a CD or DVD. Rather, the machine is designed to store a limited amount of data within the machine’s flash memory and use the Internet to connect to the cloud where all the heavy lifting and storage will be handled. So there is no more waiting for a DVD to come from Netflix. You will just log on to the Netflix site.

Many of us already use cloud computing without our knowing it. We store and share our pictures on Flickr or Snapfish. We listen to music on our computer or phone using Pandora. We have our calendars and address books stored on Goggle. Look for many more services to become available as the computing skies become cloudier.

Cloud computing does not come without some potential downsides. Next week we will look at some of the negative aspects and what you can do to address them.

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