Cloud computing means that instead of all the computer hardware and software you’re using sitting on your desktop, or somewhere inside your company’s network, it’s provided for you as a service by another company and accessed over the Internet, usually in a completely seamless way. Exactly where the hardware and software is located and how it all works doesn’t matter to you, the user—it’s just somewhere up in the nebulous “cloud” that the Internet represents.
Cloud computing is a buzzword that means different things to different people. For some, it’s just another way of describing IT (information technology) “outsourcing”; others use it to mean any computing service provided over the Internet or a similar network; and some define it as any bought-in computer service you use that sits outside your firewall. However we define cloud computing, there’s no doubt it makes most sense when we stop talking about abstract definitions and look at some simple, real examples—so let’s do just that.
The Advantages and Disadvantages of Cloud Computing
The pros of cloud computing are obvious and compelling. If your business is selling books or repairing shoes, why get involved in the nitty gritty of buying and maintaining a complex computer system? If you run an insurance office, do you really want your sales agents wasting time running anti-virus software, upgrading word-processors, or worrying about hard-drive crashes? Do you really want them cluttering your expensive computers with their personal emails, illegally shared MP3 files, and naughty YouTube videos—when you could leave that responsibility to someone else? Cloud computing allows you to buy in only the services you want, when you want them, cutting the upfront capital costs of computers and peripherals. You avoid equipment going out of date and other familiar IT problems like ensuring system security and reliability. You can add extra services (or take them away) at a moment’s notice as your business needs change. It’s really quick and easy to add new applications or services to your business without waiting weeks or months for the new computer (and its software) to arrive.
Instant convenience comes at a price. Instead of purchasing computers and software, cloud computing means you buy services, so one-off, upfront capital costs become ongoing operating costs instead. That might work out much more expensive in the long-term.If you’re using software as a service (for example, writing a report using an online word processor or sending emails through webmail), you need a reliable, high-speed, broadband Internet connection functioning the whole time you’re working. That’s something we take for granted in countries such as the United States, but it’s much more of an issue in developing countries or rural areas where broadband is unavailable.
If you’re buying in services, you can buy only what people are providing, so you may be restricted to off-the-peg solutions rather than ones that precisely meet your needs. Not only that, but you’re completely at the mercy of your suppliers if they suddenly decide to stop supporting a product you’ve come to depend on. (Google, for example, upset many users when it announced in September 2012 that its cloud-based Google Docs would drop support for old but de facto standard Microsoft Office file formats such as .DOC, .XLS, and .PPT, giving a mere one week’s notice of the change—although, after public pressure, it later extended the deadline by three months.) Critics charge that cloud-computing is a return to the bad-old days of mainframes and proprietary systems, where businesses are locked into unsuitable, long-term arrangements with big, inflexible companies. Instead of using “generative” systems (ones that can be added to and extended in exciting ways the developers never envisaged), you’re effectively using “dumb terminals” whose uses are severely limited by the supplier. Good for convenience and security, perhaps, but what will you lose in flexibility? And is such a restrained approach good for the future of the Internet as a whole? (To see why it may not be, take a look at Jonathan Zittrain’s eloquent book The Future of the Internet—And How to Stop It.)