Friday, March 27, 2009

Cloud Computing - IT'S NOT NEW!

Cloud Computing - It's the new buzzword that profiteering hopefuls like Google and Microsoft have been using lately to sell products and services on the Internet that they have not fully developed. Cloud computing is the concept that your data will be kept on some server or set thereof somewhere in the "cloud." The "cloud" is meant to mean "somewhere in the Internet where you have restricted access, but can use certain portions of on your personal computer, provided you can supply proper credentials." An example of this that is already implemented: Google Docs. Also: Zoho. These are web-based pieces of software that let you work on various types of documents that you might ordinarily use MS Office or OpenOffice to work on. Your data is stored on their server, and when you log in, you can access the stuff that belongs to you. It can be edited, printed, exported locally, or imported from a local file. This is pretty cool, and I've used both of these services before. Still, I have my reservations about agreeing to malleable terms of service and then storing whatever personal information online. It just seems like a really good opportunity for data miners. Nothing is uncrackable. You need only look as far as a decent computer security blog to see that what we perceive as impenetrable is really completely insecure when under the influence of the right people. The other thing that bothers me is that, like "Web 2.0," the terminology has become a marketing buzzword meant to indicate something like "the way of the future." It's intended to arouse and excite. I have no doubt that some people jump onto this concept like nothing else when it becomes more popular simply because it matches a definition for "cloud computing" that they never had to begin with. And the truth of the matter is that cloud computing is not a new idea. It's been around for years. Offhand, I couldn't give you a number of years, but it's been in use for longer than I've been using it. That's right. I've been using cloud computing for some time now, and it's a pretty cool thing. A friend of mine turned me on to a little thing called X forwarding. Perhaps this terminology requires some explanation. I run Linux at home as my primary operating system. My particular distro uses the X window system, which is pretty common. X is what allows windows to appear on my desktop in various forms, in accordance with the description provided by whatever software is using those windows. X treats the relationship between computer and monitor as a server/client relationship. And it supports "server" forwarding. That is, it will send the graphical definition for what a window is supposed to look like to any other X server with proper credentials. What this means I can do is be on my laptop, or be on the computer at work, or head over to a friend's house, or go to the library (assuming I can install some basic software on it), and run some free and open source software called XMing. It's an X server for Windows, Mac, and Linux. Then I establish a connection between that computer and my server through SSH (easily done with another FOSS app called Putty), and then I type the name of the program that I want to bring across the Internet. Voila! I am running a program on a remote processor, accessing my remote drives, and working with my own remote data. I have cloud computing. The best thing? All FOSS. Doesn't cost me a thing. Microsoft is talking about introducing a paid-for service like this called Azure, and while I haven't done extensive research into it, it seems likely and plausible that you'll be locked into their software when using it. That is to say, the whole reason "cloud computing" has become a marketing buzzword is that it really does have profit potential. If Microsoft or Google can get you paying for their specialized "cloud" service, then you get stuck into using their software, fearing transistion into another format or service. I'm glad I already operate more or less on the fringe of this stuff. Oh, and I know what most people will think when they read this. It's too difficult for Joe the Plumber to use. Well, it might currently be too difficult for Joe to set up for the first time, but if someone were to set this up properly for Joe to begin with (for a small fee, I'm sure), he could use it just fine.

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