Our future lies in the cloud

It seems that every article you read about some new web development contains at least four references to cloud technology. Everyone is hopping on the bandwagon — even Apple is following the herd with their move from MobileMe to iCloud. Clearly, cloud-based computing systems are here to stay.

Just as the world moved from mainframe architecture to personal computing, it seems that this is the start of a shift towards offloading certain aspects of personal computing to the cloud. So what’s next? And since we’re obsessing over ridiculously overused buzzwords, what will become of this paradigm shift?

Well, let’s start at the beginning by figuring out what a cloud is. Typically, a provider will use a cluster of servers to provide a cloud-based service which offloads processing or storage for a user. One of the more traditional cloud services is Amazon’s Elastic Compute Cloud (colloquially known as Amazon EC2) which provides a virtual computer backed by the Amazon grid, and allows the processing and storage capabilities of this virtual computer to be scaled up or down on demand.

For new websites that don’t want to invest in hardware, this is a fantastic solution — just pay for the computing time and storage that you actually use. Of course, there’s always the risk that Amazon will take a gander at your top secret data, or will lose your data should they suffer some sort of massive outage, but for many it seems that the benefits outweigh the risk.

A far more interesting discussion than the current merits and failures of the cloud computing model is a look to the future. As with any new-fangled offering, especially one that has the blogosphere abuzz at every twist and turn and development, there will be cloud providers that will carve out a niche. Running an entire virtual server on Amazon’s cloud is great, in theory, but what if you just want to offload 3D rendering?

A processing cloud that has specific API’s in place to handle the automated upload and rendering of 3D scenes will likely be tweaked to be far more efficient than an equivalent, generic virtual server. In fact – this render cloud may use Amazon’s cloud in the background, but will provide users with tools specific to this purpose.

From a consumer perspective, too, the cloud is evolving. Apple’s iCloud, which incidentally is primarily a frontend to content stored on Amazon’s EC2 cloud and Microsoft’s Azure cloud, provides OS X and iOS users with the ability to sync their device’s content with the oh-so-mystical cloud. This has the chief advantage of untethering a mobile device from a PC, as all the music, apps, photos, documents, contacts and so on can be synchronised with iCloud.

Whilst the ability to back up a mobile device to a remote server has been around since the introduction of the SyncML standard in 2000 (now known as OMA DS/DM), iCloud presents a more streamlined approach that will allow any Apple device to backup more than just contacts. It is pretty safe to assume that other mobile phone manufacturers, or mobile operating system providers, will provide a similar system in the near future.

Long-term, the cloud represents an offloading of data from external hard drives and their ilk to online storage systems powered by some sort of cloud architecture. As LTE and other wireless data methodologies become more prevalent, more powerful, so too will we be happy with more data living off our devices than on it.

Countries that are arguably third-world, at least from an internet connectivity perspective, will most likely be late adopters of such a trend…but adopt they will, and it will be like pure, virtual nirvana. Imagine a world where you don’t need to worry about trivialities like “how do I sync my documents on my work laptop with my home PC” or “how do I read that procedures document on my phone”.

Everything will live in a distributed, grid-based computing environment, and will be accessible anywhere on any device. We’re not talking DropBox synchronisation here, we’re talking about a world where all of your data lives in exactly one virtual space.

As inundating and scary as that may be to those with privacy and security and data safety concerns, that is where the cloud is going, and that is where it will eventually take us — willing or unwilling.

Image Courtesy: righteoustone.wordpress.com



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