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What is the Cloud?
June 21, 2012
Everywhere we turn today, we hear about something called “The Cloud”. This “Cloud” term is not well defined, and seems to mean something slightly different to everyone who uses the term. Clearly then, this is a purely marketing concept, meaningless in and of itself.
So exactly what are they trying to sell us, and where does the cute, fluffy idea of a “Cloud” enter in to it? The last part is easy to answer. From the earliest days of networking, a cloud has been used to represent the network itself. The complexity of interconnecting communications links, routers and network equipment is safely encapsulated inside the cloud, sometimes even with little lightening bolts connecting various computers to it. It is not a new idea, having been around for decades. The “Cloud” in cloud computing refers to nothing more or less than the Internet itself.
Almost as long as there has been a network, someone has been trying to find a way to sell some product that makes use of the network, leveraging the network in a way to do things in a new way. Actually, the very first commercial production network came into existence, long before the Internet, specifically to deliver a product a new way. In 1964 a company named Tymshare was started to sell computer services on two computers that they owned. Initially their services were delivered over a combination of dial-up over phone lines (at 110 bps) and by shipping magnetic tapes containing the data. In 1968, they built an elementary data network they called Tymnet to move the data over shared phone lines faster and better than either dial-up or by shipping tapes. This was the first instance of commercial products being delivered over a network, and came online as a product offering in 1969. It was not the first network, but the first one to generate revenue.
Cloud services are thus simply a re-spin of this old idea, using a network as a vehicle to deliver some product or service. What that product or service is depends on the imagination of the party offering it.
One of the most obvious products that can be delivered via the network is backup and remote storage. One of the most innovative in this space is a company called Dropbox. founded in 2007. Their remote storage and file syncing service is an excellent example of this type of service. Others in the same space include Box, founded in 2005, CX, and Microsoft Skydrive, all of which offer similar remote storage solutions. Others include Carbonite and Mozy, who offer a basic backup system.
Other players have pursued greater innovation by coupling the remote storage services with more advanced application delivery. Google's Drive product couples remote storage with interactive applications, including document handling, music, photos and email. Microsoft Skydrive incorporates similar integration of online storage and applications in their “Live” product line. Pogoplug integrates a local storage option with cloud storage. Amazon integrates their digital product purchases with remote storage, as does Apple in their iTunes/iCloud service.
The competition in this space is intense. There are two main business models. Many providers are offering a “loss-leader” of free service for some minimal amount to entice users into the service after which they hope that the free users will transform into paying customers. Dropbox for example gives away 2 GB of free online storage, and when that is full, they sell additional storage for a fee. Most of the others do something similar. Of course the users benefit from ready availability of free online storage. Other providers link their services to another business. Amazon wants to sell you digital music and books, encouraging you to store them in their service. Google does this too with their Google Play service.
Many other players are attempting to leverage the buzz around the cloud concept in various ways. Dlink uses cloud concepts to sell the remote management capabilities of their routers. Cisco is doing similar things, and incorporating their surveillance cameras into the mix. In their case, the cloud service is ancillary to their main products lines.
Everyone with any product that works on the Internet is racing to leverage the cloud concept and take advantage of the newfound public awareness of the Internet. The word of the day, “Cloud”, has no real meaning. If you just forget the use of the term “cloud” and think of the product offered strictly in terms of the good or service being offered, you will be a lot less confused.
Other services offer specialized storage solutions. Picassa is another of Google's service offerings, aimed at photos, and selling you printing and other photo-related services. Google Play is a similar service aimed at storing your music collection, selling you more music from their online stores. Amazon Cloud Drive offers a similar service aimed at storing music, but also allowing more general storage and integrating with their online digital media stores.
This is a rapidly changing and evolving business, and new players appear almost every day, and older players will fail and disappear. While the services are available, the average user can benefit greatly by taking advantage of the free portions of the service for storing personal data. Some of the bigger players such as Microsoft and Google have the resources to stay in the game for the long haul, so likely will not vanish anytime soon. Smaller players may not be so fortunate. While these services can be useful for backing up your data, use care that it is not lost when companies fail.
You can be sure some of these will fail. Transforming users of a free service into paying subscribers is a challenge, and hosting mass storage and buying communications bandwidth is expensive. Only the deep pocket players can hope to sustain the business model until it matures. However this should not be an overly concerning problem for the end user. Never place anything on a cloud account for which you do not have at least one, preferably multiple local copies. In the event of a laptop disaster, or hard drive crash, Cloud Storage can come to the rescue.