Sunday, February 10, 2013

Partly cloudy to Cloudy

I'm a geek, it had to come to this.

A geek post.

One of my coworkers has drunk the "Cloud" Kool Aid. Everything has to "be in the Cloud". Otherwise you're a "box hugger".

So, what the hell am I talking about?

Have you wondered what the "Cloud" is?

"The Cloud" is any service that you can reach from the Internet.  Traditionally, if you wanted to use something, you had to go to a computer. Frequently, you had to go to your computer. For example, if you wanted to access the latest sales figures, you had to log in to your computer at work and open the file stored on your hard drive with the spreadsheet program installed on your computer. If you copied that file onto a floppy (or more recently, a USB drive) and took it home, you could not access that data unless you had a compatible version of the spreadsheet program installed on your computer at home. Meaning, you had to have a copy of your own installed on the computer you have at home. If you were not near a computer with that program installed on it then you were unable to access the data in that file.

Things got better, you had file servers at work so that you could log in to any company computer with your company credentials and access any data that you are allowed to access. So, files that you have stored on your shared hard drive space are accessible by you from anywhere on the company network - L.A. or New York.

Even Berlin.

If you could not get access to your company network, then that data was unavailable to you.

The same with any music that you might have digitized. If you didn't have your mp3 player with you and you weren't at home, then you did without your music (we'll skip over CD players in your car or PC).

With the Intenet, we began to be able to log in to the work network via a Virtual Private Network (VPN) that acted like a private extension of the work network. Only to your home. Or at your local purveyor of high-end coffee.

You get the idea.

But, things tended to still be locked up or behind walls. If you could not run your VPN software, then you could not access the data that you needed to access. So, if you ran a Mac that did not have VPN software of the type that your company uses, you were unable to access your company network. Likewise if your smart phone didn't have a compliant VPN application, the corporate network and data was unavailable to you.

Similarly, all of the music on your hard drive was unavailable to you. So if your mp3 player wasn't large enough to hold all of your music, you had to choose in advance what music you thought you might want to listen to. Or your movies.

The next evolution was for folks to provide an answer to that. They created software-as-a-service (SaaS). It started with things like contact management software (actually, it started as email like Hotmail), the first of which was which hosted enterprise-level customer relationship management (CRM) software for sales people to manage their customers.

This software only required that the customer be able to access the Internet.

And have a browser.

With internet access and a browser, you could access the site, log in with your credentials and immediately access your contact management data. Now your sales force had access to customer data while they were out on the road. Whether that road led to Muncie or Munich.

Google Docs added a basic software suite of word processor, spreadsheet, and shared calendars (okay, and email) for a company's people to use.

From anywhere.

With the ability to delegate actions (important for management) and share data documents.

Now, a company's workers can access and share company data with anyone in the company regardless of where they are.

Now, in g33k (aka, geek) circles, the interior networks are shown as diagrams of nets, subnets, routers, and so on. And the external world, the Internet, is shown as a nebulous thing, a cloud. Literally, a figure of a cloud is used to indicate the Internet. And this representation has been used for many years now. Well before "The Cloud" became the defacto phrase for anything that is an Internet-based service.

So, any service that only requires an Internet connection to use is referred to as being "in the Cloud".

Still here? Still awake? Good, we're almost finished.

So the issue came up about a service that we were planning on offering and that it should be hosted "in the cloud". Because, if we did, we wouldn't have to worry about servers, networking, licenses, or anything. It would "just scale" through the magic of "Cloud".

It would just know.

Like magic.

And we could stop hugging servers and insisting on having hardware. In fact, anybody teaching folks on servers and how to use them or how to build infrastructure was wasting time and effort in teaching folks how to build buggy whips.

Except, those "clouds" don't form from pixi dust or unicorn sweat. People have to open boxes, remove servers and rack them, stack them, and configure them.

Now, you can use kickstart files to automate a lot of that, but you have to know how this "magic" works in order to write kickstart files (files which automatically install and configure the servers as required).

Somebody has to teach how this stuff works. Not as a certificate course, but using theory to explain how they work, how to design them, what the various designs are and their strengths and weaknesses are, and why certain configurations are preferred over others for various requirements. In short, a degreed program that turns out folks who will design the coming generations of technological infrastructure(s) that will support whatever the future holds for us. In short, while one day the concept of having your own server farms may no longer be necessary for many of us, someone somewhere will be creating the infrastructure to handle it for you. We should keep teaching that.

But we're not there yet. Probably not going to be there within ten years either.

Flickr and tumblr are examples of Cloud services. Hotmail and Gmail are as well. iCloud and MeGo as well as Dropbox are yet more examples of Cloud service offerings. Most of these are free, and sometimes that is their real value to you. See here for an example of the service providing apropos to its cost to the end user.

This stuff is all fine and good. If you're in civilization.

You know, limitless wifi, true high speed Internet connections.

Not like many regions of New England. Or the Midwest. Or most of the U.S. at this point in time.

Without this ubiquitous high speed Internet access. Always and everywhere, you'll need to have local assets and copies of things that you want if you want to access them whenever you want.

For the foreseeable future, we'll have to hug something technical.

Me? I'm a coffee guy.

I'm not a Kool Aid guy. Especially when someone is handing it out to the masses.


  1. I'm OK with being a box hugger. I don't like the Cloud. I don't like FB. All of that.

    My company can't use things like the Cloud and maybe it's due to the security breaches we have to be wary of, that I am so not into the Cloud at home. There is absolutely NOTHING I have at home that anyone else needs to have that I can't email, with the exception of the Dropbox acct I opened to I could sift big pix to my folks.

    Other than that? Nope.

    That said, the schools have moved to The Clouds. I have yet to understand whether they did it because they really needed to or if it was the ability to say 'Look, our school is hip and cool. We're on The Cloud'.

  2. They have "Government Clouds" which is a cloud environment where only government customers are hosted in that area. But, you still have to secure it properly and anyone with access to it whose machine becomes compromised will still allow miscreants access via that machine.

    Cloud means that you no longer have to worry about buying servers, dealing with licensing, paying for a network person, paying for a server person, paying for a data center, paying for interpretable power sources, etc. Done properly it can save money. And, given your location, it means that the servers are located in a non-hurricane zone so that the data will not be lost. If the schools web page is hosted there, they can continue to update the webpage so that anyone that has moved out of the impacted area and has Internet access can see posted announcements regarding the school.

    Dropbox is just one example of how "the Cloud" works for you. As long as you're aware that you might lose anything stored there or that it could become compromised if Dropbox becomes compromised, then you're good.

    The main thrust of my argument is that Cloud can be okay, but that this hype of "we don't need no stinking servers" is not. Currently there are good arguments for using Cloud services, but mostly no good arguments for getting rid of all server farms (one or a hundred) right now.

    I know that you used to be able to get a free Amazon server on their cloud (Amazon Web Services - AWS). Why? Mmmmm, how about a free server that you can use for your own storage? Or a free server to practice you web page design. Or to host a blog on.

    In some cases, these cloud services claim the right to use anything that you store there as they see fit. Like selling your photos to an ad agency or using your photos in an ad campaign of theirs.

    As with many things, it's really a matter of balance and awareness of what the real expectations are.

  3. I agree with you. I don't think it's the replacement. I just can't rely on someone else to not lose my data... to keep it. I can't think of any reason why I'd let Google keep my data for me.

    And now that I think about it... there is a secure site I go on to when I get my data to the government that might be a Cloud of some sort. It's all encrypted.