Friday, March 18, 2011

Cometh the Cloud - what's it all about?

Last year I compiled a report of the spending of the top 100 IT companies in New Zealand, and I happened to notice two conspicuous trends...

One of which was to do with companies increasingly trying out Agile methodologies to deliver to market – and I've talked a fair bit about Agile elsewhere (and will continue to do).

The other trend was about companies seeking more CLOUD solutions – a term I was completely unaware of at the time, though I've been reading about it ever since.

So this is a brief introduction to “the Cloud concept”.

In order to describe it, I'm actually going to go back into computer history, and show really the Cloud concept is something quite old, that's come back in fashion, but with a modern twist.

Gonna party like it's 1969 …

Yes, in the 60s and 70s, computers were big and expensive.  If you were lucky, your company could afford a single large computer to serve their computer needs.

This large computer would act as a server, and you'd have multiple terminals connected to them that looked like this …

These terminals were pretty dumb, they were essentially just a keyboard and a monitor.  Any commands you ran on it, were really run on the server.  They functioned just as a way to run programs on the server for you, and would show you the results.

In fact the server itself probably didn't have any direct access to it except through these terminals – it just sat there doing it's stuff, and you could monitor or command through the terminals.

Cometh the home PC

All this is very nice, but without any internet as we'd know it, this meant computers were limited to just large corporations who could afford such expensive servers.

Then along came the home PC …

They might have looked a bit like them, but these were no “dumb” terminals!  IBM were first, but those of us of a certain age still remember “our first” be it something like the BBC Micro, Commodore 64 or ZX Spectrum.

What these machines allowed was something much smaller than the server model – they didn't need a network connection to a more powerful machine, they could handle all the processing internally, and had a few peripherals like a floppy disk drive and printer if you were lucky.

They took off, with every home and small business could suddenly afford a home PC of some kind, and people found them useful for doing all kinds of things.  Computer software and games became a huge industry, supplying what you needed to harness the power of your machine.

But then everything changed …

Along came the internet!  And suddenly we started creeping back the other way.  We could do things on our home PC, but then connect up to a larger network and share what we'd done.  We could have the best of both worlds.

When I first got an internet computer in 1999 I tended to do a lot of work offline, but then upload and share any information I needed to, then go offline again.  These days my computer goes on, and I connect online immediately, and if I'm not online (dodgy New Zealand internet connections) I don't feel I can fully realise my computer!

So the Cloud

Well the Cloud is a lot like the old 70s computer model, with a few small differences.

You have a server, which can be anywhere in the world, and you connect to it via the internet.  On this Cloud server you can run many different kinds of programs, only instead of using a VT terminal to access the Cloud server, you use most likely either a web browser or some bespoke software (which to all extents is functioning like a web browser).

Heck even better in this modern age – you can even use something like your smartphone to access the power of the Cloud.

So what can you do there?

Well pretty much anything.  You know when you're sending Hotmail and using the web browser application to organise your mail, you're using a Cloud application!  Likewise, you can write up documents in a Cloud application, and they're kept there.

Here's the good stuff

Being in the Cloud, the data on these servers is accessible to you from anywhere.  The benefits of this are …

  • Mobility of your data.  Ever done work at home and forgotten the USB drive you were working on?  D'oh!  If you're near an internet connection you can access your data.
  • Backed up and safe.  Yeah as long as you have a strong password of course.  We've all had computers that have had the hard disk fail for some reason.  And no matter how good our backups we almost always lose some data.  My best friend Violet actually had a nervous breakdown when her disk died and she lost all her art coursework.  It's very upsetting and costly.  Many of us back up our digital photos, but in a fire at home, it's likely we'll lose both our originals and the backups.
  • Secure.  We've all heard the stories of someone losing a disk of important information on a train.  When we carry media around with us, it's always in danger from theft.  And we rarely password protect or encrypt it as we think it's not going to happen to us.  With documentation in the Cloud there's no risk of physical theft.  Though of course there's the spectre of the hacker to deal with.

Course it's not all quite that easy, there is internet security.  If you're a company buying a Cloud solution you need to make sure there is a backup server, and that the backup server is located “elsewhere” from the primary one, so in an earthquake or tsunami like in Christchurch or Japan, you continue to function your business. *

One of the leading lights in providing Cloud service at the moment is Xero, an accountancy application that allows you to keep track of your business incoming/outgoing records.  Definitely a company to watch,

But more than likely there'll be a Cloud Camp event somewhere near you this year where you can talk with others about Cloud and what they're up to "in the Cloud" ...  These events can be a lot of fun, and are driven by attendees, AND FREE!  So no excuse ...

*  That seems cruel to talk of business in the face of such tragedy I know.  But I worked for a bank during one of the Christchurch earthquakes.  They worked tirelessly to get ATMs working, to provide people in Christchurch with immediate extra credit – simply because giving people access to resources to help them through such difficult periods meant that society didn't fall apart and descend into lawlessness (if people can't get money or buy what they need, they tend to try and take it), which would have cause more deaths.


  1. Typical - I forget one of the best things about the Cloud - as the application is sitting on a server, it means you can interface this same functionality, not just with a computer/laptop, but also with a smartphone if needed!

    Awesome ... okay sounding a bit too much like one of *those* kinds of developer, but it's pretty cool!

  2. Xero - It's good Basic Accounting software with good reporting. It's cloud-based. It has nice graphics for reporting.

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