The rise of the cloud

The term ‘cloud computing’ has long been used in technology circles and has had as many meanings as you might expect from such a vague moniker. However as technology finally begins to catch up with its most common definitions, the theory has begun to become a reality.

In its most general form cloud computing is about ubiquitous and platform-neutral access to information and services – be they personal or public. Wireless internet which is available across a large geographical location is often referred to as ‘the cloud’, while the ability to use software that is stored remotely rather than on your hard drive – such as Google Apps – also fits under the same umbrella.

On a more technical level, the concept of the cloud is based around a pooled network of servers and other devices that automatically adapts to provide the end user with the information, processing power, storage and applications they need at any given time.

“Like any new innovation there are so many definitions and it creates a little bit of confusion for people,” said Stephen McCarron, Managing Director of Hosting365. “What we’re doing with our cloud is to build a large pooled and flexible network that can be provided as a service to the end user.”

McCarron likens his company’s approach to the old idea of shared hosting – where a number of users operate their websites from a single server rather than their own isolated machine – albeit on a far greater and more sophisticated scale.

“It’s not shared in the sense that they can impact upon each other but shared in the sense that they share the investment in hardware rather than pay for it all individually,’’ he said.

The benefits far outweigh simple savings from shared ownership, however. The software used to power a cloud manages each component on the network and allocates processing power and storage space according to demand, meaning a server is neither left idle during a drop in demand nor stretched to breaking during a peak.

As companies would traditionally have to buy and maintain enough server capacity to deal with its highest peak no matter how rare this was, this adaptability means they can then pay just for what they are using rather than what they might be forced to use at some stage in the future.

“Automated provisioning is a key part of the cloud concept – for example why buy a dedicated server for payroll when it’s only used once a month?” said Pól MacAonghusa, Manager for IBM’s Cloud Computing Centre in Dublin. “With the cloud software console you can tell the cloud to automatically apportion enough space for the payroll software on a particular day at a particular time and have the server put to good use elsewhere for the rest of the time.”

IBM is certainly confidant in their vision of the cloud, having recently announced a huge worldwide investment in centres specialising in the area, including its European cloud HQ based in Dublin. IBM is also working with big international players like Google in the same area.

“Put simply this is about using a network as a whole, rather than as single pieces strung together,’’ said MacAonghusa. “As well as this the cloud can automatically configure new hardware added to the network without anyone having to physically go in there and tinker with it.”

With all of this information centralised this surely makes security concerns all the more important, though. No more than before, said MacAonghusa.

“The old standard of making decisions based on prudence haven’t gone away… by and large companies know how to protect their data and those disciplines are never going to be removed by a silver-bullet technology,” he said.

For the regular user the cloud may not seem like something that will change their lives but there are benefits for the everyday user too. At its most extreme the cloud allows computers to be used as just a terminal, with all the processing and storage power coming from the network rather than the local machine – this means any device connected to the network or internet can be used to remotely control your office or personal computer, providing access to everything stored on it no matter how far you are physically from it.

Synchronisation between various devices, from mobile phones to desktop computers, can also be done automatically in the background meaning a change made to a contact’s details on one device will be made everywhere else without the user having to even request it.

The truth is, however, that companies like IBM and Hosting365 would prefer the end user to see no difference in the way they work as people tend only to become aware of the network when it is not doing its job.

“A long time ago you would have companies generating their own electricity on-site but now most places just have a power cable running into the building from a far-away location – that’s where I see the cloud taking office servers and networks,” said McCarron. “You shouldn’t need to know how the engine room works to enjoy the view from the deck.”

An edited version of this feature appeared in Business & Finance magazine in August 2008.

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