I had a conversation with someone earlier this week about what cloud computing is exactly, and that gave me a bit of pause. I’ve been using cloud services for ages (Gmail, flickr, facebook, Google docs, etc.), but describing it seemed a bit tricky. I blame it on lack of coffee. To me, cloud computing ties in with the idea of software as a service: you don’t specifically need to install a local application on your local machine to work with content stored on the internet. You can use Facebook anywhere at any time, and all you need is the net. You can log into Flickr from any computer, be it a Mac, a PC, or a Linux box, and manage your photos. This takes us away from locally stored content, towards content and software that is stored and managed in the cloud. All you need is a web browser and you should be good to go. This proves really useful for hardware like netbooks, which are underpowered and may have limited storage capacity.
The benefits for users are straightforward, you can just get to work regardless of your location, as long as you have the net. You can create, navigate, and communicate with your contacts, without specifically being tethered to any one machine. If your primary computer fails, you won’t lose the work you’ve done, if for instance it’s stored in Google Docs (the cloud).
So the short of it is, the cloud is basically the internet. Cloud computing is some web based software, service, or content management that allows you to get to your desired content regardless of local set-up (as long as the net’s available).
Services like Dropbox which I’ve mentioned previously can be considered cloud computing. Dropbox *does* have a local application you can install, but this is only value added to the end-user. You can still directly work with files, without specifically needing to install their local syncing utility. You can manage and access cloud content without the *need* for any local non-browser application.
As we move forwards, more and more services are becoming available through the cloud. Microsoft is providing lightweight versions of its applications through the cloud, with Office 2010. This provides users with new ways to work with their content online. The only cautionary word as always, is that, given your content is being transmitted over the net, and stored on a third party server (the software is running as a hosted service on servers, and your content is hosted on content servers), be wary about what you store in the cloud.
In case you need a more eloquent explanation, there are some pretty good sound bites from the Web 2.0 Conference, given by some notable people in IT, describing what cloud computing is to them:
Customary quasi-related song for this post: Bill Withers – Ain’t No Sunshine