Every time I read about the “new” technology known as cloud computing I hear in my mind that old Rolling Stones song, “Hey You, Get Off Of My Cloud.”
It also brings back memories of working on a computer that stored its files somewhere else in a giant data storage unit, similar to what cloud computing is today.
The bad old days
Every now and then I would try to retrieve an unfinished article only to find it was no longer there because someone had decided to kill it in order to make room for other files. I once threatened to toss someone out the window, my version of “get off my cloud” if he ever killed another file of mine again. Once the personal computer came along and we got control over our own files that issue disappeared.
Now, I’m afraid, it’s all about to come back with cloud computing. Fortunately, this time there maybe enough room on these clouds to contain all the data anyone would ever want to store.
Back to the future
Cloud computing has actually been around for a number of years. But now it’s being promoted to consumers as one of the next big things in computer innovations. It is the technology behind web-based services that store your digital files -- whether they’re videos and songs, books and personal photos or back-up data to protect what’s on your hard drive.
It stores everything remotely and offers you access from multiple devices through a browser or downloadable app. A well-known example would be iTunes, which stores all of your music.
Cloud computing was one of the innovations attracting crowds at this year's International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. It showed music files available anywhere, anytime, movie-sharing among friends, and never again losing hundreds of downloaded television shows along with a lost laptop.
For consumers, the advances could also save money. Those who use on-demand or streaming media services like TiVo, Amazon On-Demand and iTunes could soon be able to buy a movie, a song or an album and store it in the cloud instead of on a hard drive. In fact, hard-drives could go the way of the cassette, floppy disk or eight track tape.
Saving data in the cloud is already cheap -- in small batches. Gmail, for example offers users more than 7.5GB free, or more than 355,000 emails. An extra 20GB per year costs $5. And, once you store that video or song there, you could access it from multiple Internet-connected devices, which eliminates the need to buy multiple copies to cover several devices. Eventually this will eliminate the need to buy DVD or Blu-ray players, or even those external hard-drives.
Proponents of cloud computing say remote storage also makes it less devastating to have a device stolen, lost or damaged. Your media won't be lost along with your stolen laptop or iPad.
The advantage of backing up to the cloud, rather than to an external hard drive, for example, is that you can access your data immediately, say, from a loaner laptop.
According to the FBI's National Crime Information Center, laptop computers are the most-stolen device. In 2008, the latest available statistics, more than 109,000 were stolen. And a study conducted the same year by the Urban Institute said incidents of stolen iPods were so high that they actually skewed crime statistics.
People storing data in the cloud might also save money on their actual gadgets, because they might be able to get by with a smaller hard drive and a less powerful processor. You also won’t have to worry about how much space the latest movie you downloaded will take up on your MP3 player because it won’t be stored there. All this could encourage consumers to buy less expensive netbooks for about $300 instead of more than twice that much for 4GB laptop with 320 GB of storage.
The downsides are that remote storage in the cloud raises privacy and security concerns. Once again, we will no longer be controlling our data or the measures that protect that data. Amber Yoo, a spokeswoman for the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse urges people to read the fine print to find out who can access your content, and what will happen to it if the company storing it goes under.
She says that if you use such a service, consider retaining any sensitive material on a computer or other hard drive at home, where you can provide virtual padlocks including a firewall and password protection.
As cloud computing goes mainstream, security measures will grow even more important. Analysts have repeatedly speculated that Apple and Google could both soon announce cloud-based music storage services. Other cloud services will be ready for consumers by this spring. Wireless provider Cricket just rolled out a plan that includes music downloads stored on the cloud.
Vizio is putting video game system OnLive's content on its Web-connected TVs, computers and phones -- letting gamers play from anywhere. And backup service SugarSync is talking up its 5GB free cloud storage, which includes music storage with unlimited streaming of your collection to a phone or browser without downloading.
Then there’s the issue I worry about. Someone thinking there’s not enough space left so they have to kill something. Gartner analyst David Smith says content providers will place limits on capacity and bandwidth and that could hamper the experience initially.
I think I’ll continue to keep a few thumb-drives around just in case. Maybe even a hard drive just to be safe.