Professor Randolph Bias
March 6, 2008
Imagine a world where information is always accessible – music, movies, documents, and presentations are all stored online in remote servers. Sharing these items with collaborators does not require the need to email individual files or track multiple versions of documents. Vast collections of servers can store massive amounts of data without a company needing to buy a single supercomputer… and every bit of information is available all the time through ultra-portable devices with high speed Internet connections. Welcome to the world of cloud computing; big players like Amazon, Google, and Apple want to transform the cloud from a trendy catchphrase to reality. But will both consumers and companies want to shift into a fundamentally different way of computing? Does the ease of shared resources overshadow the possible privacy issues involved? And how can cloud computing enhance the usability of everyday tasks for the consumer?
Like its meteorological namesake, this “cloud” of computers can seem a little fuzzy at the edges. No single definition for cloud computing has been standardized; every major company invested in the development of this type of technology focuses on different aspects of the “cloud.” Some see cloud computing manifested in web-based applications while others see the cloud as a form of utility computing that processes vast amounts of data. Another group thinks the cloud is akin to parallel computing; this approach divides large problems into smaller ones that are processed concurrently (Weiss 18). Regardless of the particular definition one chooses, a single theme seems to repeat within the discussion of cloud computing; one can access more resources with less hassle.
Distinguishing a “cloud” from a grouping of machines is tricky; clouds require a higher level of interoperability than a standard network. As a result, computer engineers are focusing efforts on creating a “data center” operating system that replaces the independent machines running its own copy of an OS. Essentially, this “CloudOS” can manage the resources of an entire cluster of computers more cohesively than ever before (20). This “omniscient” operating system relies on networking channels to emulate the operations of a single physical machine. In terms of usability, this can eliminate a whole spectrum of possible problems arising from the individual installations of an operating system. The cloud can avoid the inconsistencies of multiple installations of an operating system; instead, adopted standards can increase the ability of a user to trouble-shoot and manage the resources of the entire cloud. A single interface replaces the possible confusion of multiple instances, reducing the possibility of human error in administration or diagnostics.
None of this comes cheap; these server clouds require immense amounts of power for both running and cooling the machines. Both Google and Amazon have built these data centers in the Pacific Northwest and Canada where hydroelectric plants provide cheaper (and greener) power. Other companies are looking at building data centers in China, the home of a rapidly expanding number of power plants (Weiss 19). The possibilities for profit are yet unexplored, but the market is there. Most companies rely on in-house data centers to use at will, but there are significant costs associated with the development and maintenance of such facilities. These include real estate, hardware, power, cooling, and upkeep of hardware. The threat of disasters necessitates back-up, redundancy, and overpowered servers. Google, IBM, and Amazon have spent countless dollars on innovating their own large-scale data centers. For these companies, a logical extension of this investment would be to create a business model to support third party users.
So, what is currently being offered in terms of cloud computing? Amazon’s Elastic Compute Cloud, or EC2, Beta program provides access to a “cloud” of computer servers, offering consumers, educators, and businesses immediate access to this type of technology. Amazon introduced this service in late 2007, and it has already seen a good bit of success. EC2 is perfect for data crunching, filling a gap between desktops and supercomputers. Now software programs can use these linked computers to scan huge data sets, such as the contents of system-wide email programs, social networks, and Wikipedia. The cloud can also launch additional machine instances of Web applications if traffic spikes, preventing downtime within these massive programs. Amazon’s EC2 has a pay-as-you-go model, charging about fifteen cents to store a gigabyte of data for a month or ten cents an hour for processing time. Google and IBM have taken a different route to promote cloud computing; they will offer free use of a cluster of computers to the computer science departments of top American research universities (Hand 963). These companies encourage the use cloud computing for one simple reason: they have to have someone to hire. To be valuable Google employees in the future, computer science students of today need to learn how to write software that uses the interlinked computers to work in a parallel fashion. By offering these students the resources to learn how to accomplish these tasks, Google and IBM are ensuring themselves of a future workforce.
Another intriguing aspect of the cloud computing world is the idea of software as service. By moving all of the processing power to an external server, one could walk around with just a portable input device. This framework is already in place today; the Web offers a multitude of applications that replace software. For many people, they only use Web-based email systems. The development of Google Documents provides a free alternative to pricy word processing programs – and Google has also introduced spreadsheet and presentation software to challenge that market of software programs. Microsoft has taken note; they have started to develop their own “cloud” to future-proof their business model. Even Adobe has created Web versions of Photoshop and Premiere in order to appeal to this new type of user. The idea of cloud computing represents a paradigm shift for the consumer. Instead of choosing option-laden machines, one can now consider efficient, uncomplicated devices. With PDAs, cell phones, and ultra-portable devices like the iPod Touch providing nearly constant Web access… why not?
With the splashy launch of the MacBook Air, Apple introduced the first public test of the viability and usability of cloud computing (Rubel). Apple sees this future as a more immediate prospect. Cloud computing has moved out of the realm of science fiction, so Apple has already started manufacturing the devices that can access these vast networks. At CES (Consumer Electronics Show) 2008, Bill Gates gave a speech about the future of cloud computing; the next week, Steve Jobs introduces an ultra portable laptop that aims to bring this nebulous concept to the masses. The design of the computer is striking; while not the thinnest laptop nor the lightest laptop in the world, it is elegant. It feels like a solid piece of metal. Its size doesn’t force a user to compromise all luxuries of a larger laptop. A glossy 13.3 inch LCD screen, a full-size keyboard , and a heralded multi-touch trackpad make the MacBook Air feel similar to other Apple products. The trackpad should be noted as a gem of usable design; essentially the same as the interface of the iPhone, the user can squeeze, expand, and rotate with intuitive gestures. The learning curve for the trackpad is quite small; even the most technological unsavvy person can pick up the mannerisms quickly.
The main focus of the MacBook Air is to bring portability to the masses. Its size is neglible. Television advertisement shows the computer fitting into a manila envelope. One reviewer even noted that he thought his backpack was empty, despite the MacBook Air and all of its accessories contained within his bag (Venezia 3). In no way does this computer feel like a desktop replacement; Apple designed it without an optical drive. Instead, Apple expects users to install programs through downloading or through a special remote program that accesses other computers, both Windows and Apple. The same thought process is behind the inclusion of only one USB port. The hard drive is also quite small; an even smaller solid-state version is offered for another thousand dollars. The computer does not even offer a typical Ethernet connection – an adaptor can be plugged into the single USB port. All of these factors offer challenges in terms of a consumer’s typical use patterns, especially if one likes to use an external mouse or stores information on DVDs or flash drives or uses a wired connection … and wants to utilize all at the same time. The design of the MacBook Air commits to the principles of cloud computing, forcing the user to change his behavior. In terms of usability, this is a definite drawback to this product. The design is flawed, but both its physical beauty and its commitment to the idea of cloud computing still attracts admirers.
Does this design by Apple mark the beginning of consumer acceptance of the idea of cloud computing? Perhaps. Sales have been brisk, but far from mind-blowing. Small segments of the population seem to agree to these limitations, especially frequent business travelers. But for the price, it seems difficult for the general public to make the switch over to a wholly cloud computing model. Privacy concerns, especially regarding the need for wireless security, is also troubling. Cloud computing expects one to store and process vast amounts of information on third party servers. The possibility of that data being hacked, stolen, or sold makes one wonder about the safety of this system (Pollette 3). Both the current implementation of cloud computing and the devices built around it need refinement in order to increase its usability and viability for the future.
Hand, Eric. “Head in the Clouds.” Nature. 25;449 (2007 Oct).
Pollette, Chris. “How the Google-Apple Cloud Computer Will Work.” Howstuffworks.com. 2 Mar. 2008 .
Rubel, Steve. “The MacBook Air is the Biggest Test Yet for Cloud Computing.” MicroPersuasion. 2 Mar. 2008 .
Venezia, Paul. “Product review: MacBook Air is light as, well, air.” InfoWorld.com (Feb 11, 2008): NA. General OneFile. Gale. University of Texas at Austin. 2 Mar. 2008 .
Weiss, Aaron. Computing in the clouds. netWorker 11, 4 (Dec. 2007), 16-25 .