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Head in the Clouds

September 30, 2009
by Anne Pinckard
an artist's depiction of cloud computing

The promise of cloud computing might actually be understated

For several years, cloud computing has been “the next big thing” rumbling around the IT world. Yet experts can’t even agree on how to define it. In a recent paper, computer scientist Armando Fox and his colleagues at Berkeley cleared the air about cloud computing, laying out its challenges and its promises. “Computer science is one of these fields that are plagued by having too much hype,” he said. “But we spent several months thinking about it as we were putting together that report, and we don’t think this is hype.”

In general terms, cloud computing is a way of accessing computers remotely through the Internet and harnessing their processing power. It was made possible by the growing Internet-based companies such as Amazon and Google that consolidated their computers into giant data centers. As many as 300,000 computers might sit in one warehouse, typically remaining idle for 70 percent of the day, according to Fox. The idea behind cloud computing was simply to rent out the downtime on a short-term basis and very cheaply, and pull in extra revenue. “It was a radical thing,” Fox said.

Liberated from the need to buy computers outright, entrepreneurs can start up with very little money, yet expand rapidly if their service becomes popular. “Before, if you had an idea for a new piece of software that would run as an Internet service, it was not easy for you to deploy it. And God help you if you deployed it and it got really popular. Then you’d have a situation where you couldn’t keep up with demand and you became a victim of your own success.” Similarly he thinks cloud computing will turn out to be a boon for scientists who need to crunch large amounts of data. “If you need 100 hours of compute time, heck, get 500 machines, and your experiment will take 15 minutes,” he said. Outsourcing computing will free up funds and let researchers do what they do best—research.

A number of challenges remain before the technology can fulfill its potential, according to the Berkeley report. Moving the data to and from the warehouses can be slow—a 1 terabyte dataset can take up to a week. The data centers are vulnerable to hackers or physical damage. More nebulous are the legal issues: If there is a security breach, who is accountable? Who is responsible if the government is investigating a crime and requires access to an email stored in the data center?

Nevertheless, Fox is undaunted. Data can be stored on hard drives that can be mailed, he said. “We suggested this in our paper, and people laughed. But guess what—they’re doing it!” As for security, he has a ready answer: “Frankly, I trust them more than me.” And though the law is perpetually some ten years behind technology, he doesn’t think it will stop innovation. “If you think about the kinds of things people use the Internet for now, the Web founders had no idea of that,” he said. “And I think cloud computing is going to be that same way. In three years we’re going to look back and say, that’s what we thought? We had our heads up our butts!”

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