The newest technology these days in computers is called “cloud computing.” Indeed, we already see several examples of this in today's genealogy software and I am certain we will see even more within the next two or three years.
Cloud computing refers to Internet-based software and databases. The Internet itself is “the cloud.” In almost all drawings of Internet applications, the Internet is shown as a “cloud” into which various computers are connected. The cloud is used as a graphic to represent all sorts of servers, routers, and high-speed connections that are invisible to the user. In short, the user does not need to know where the equipment is located nor what kind of equipment is used. All the user needs to know is how to connect to “the cloud” and access the resources available. “Cloud computing” is simply the next evolution of remote computing.
In order to establish a comparison, let's first look at traditional genealogy software as used in personal computers for the past thirty years or so. Thirty years ago, most genealogy programs for personal computers stored the software and the data on floppy disks or on cassette magnetic tapes. The technology has since switched to hard drives and perhaps even to “jump drives” but the basics remain the same: the software and the data is still stored on disk drives in the local computer.
This method has worked well for millions of genealogists but does have several disadvantages. The biggest issue, in my opinion, is that each person's database remains as a separate, isolated “island” of information. Data that is already on your personal computer may be manually duplicated by a distant relative who lives up the street or across the continent. There is no easy method of comparing data to see if someone else has already solved the mysteries you are dealing with.
Another disadvantage is that each person is responsible for maintaining his or her own data and software installation. When a software vendor releases an update to a genealogy program, each and every one of that vendor's customers need to install the update themselves. That's a trivial exercise for anyone who is familiar with computer operations but can be daunting for those with less expertise. Even worse, each and every computer user is responsible for performing backups of the critical data. Many people simply do not perform backups. We have all heard stories of genealogists who have lost years of research material because of a computer malfunction with no backups available.
Cloud computing solves these issues in a manner that requires little technical expertise. This new technology introduces a style of computing in which dynamically scalable and often virtualized resources are provided as a service over the Internet. Users do not need to have knowledge of, expertise in, or control over the technology infrastructure "in the cloud" that supports them. Software upgrades, backups, and other administrative tasks are handled remotely by systems engineers who possess the proper expertise. All this is performed with little or no intervention by the end user.
Cloud computing may be free or sometimes is offered at moderate costs. It is almost always cheaper than purchasing software, purchasing upgrades, performing backups, and possibly purchasing new, larger disk drives.
Cloud computing uses many new buzzwords, such as infrastructure as a service (IaaS), platform as a service (PaaS) and software as a service (SaaS) as well as Web 2.0 and other terms that may not yet be familiar to everyone. The concept of all of these terms is simple, however: someone else takes care of the hardware, the software, and the infrastructure. The end user is shielded from the complexities involved.
Examples of software as a service (SaaS) vendors include Salesforce.com and Google Apps which provide common business applications online that are accessed from a web browser, while the software and data are stored on remote servers. New SaaS applications seem to appear daily.
My favorite cloud computing vendor is Zoho.com which offers a plethora of online applications, some free and others are available for a small fee. Zoho's offerings include a word processor (which is better than Google Documents in my opinion), a spreadsheet (which is better than Google's cloud-based spreadsheet in almost everyone's opinion), a web-based e-mail service, a presentation program (similar to PowerPoint), an online notetaker, a wiki, a sharing space for documents and photos, an online planning organizer, an online calendar, a CRM package, a database program, and much more.
In cloud computing or SaaS (I will use those two terms interchangeably), the data is stored on a web server someplace. The end user probably does not even know where the server is located nor should he or she care. It is simply “someplace on the Internet.” The user connects to the Internet, enters a web address, and is connected.
The genealogy software itself might be located someplace on the Internet or possibly installed on the user's local hard drive. I will discuss examples of both later in this article.
All of this is not new in the genealogy world. In fact, SaaS has been around in genealogy applications for nine years, long before the term “SaaS” entered the computer dictionaries.
The First Cloud Computing Genealogy Products
OneGreatFamily.com launched an online service in the summer of 2000. Like many new products or services, OneGreatFamily.com was a bit primitive in 2000 when compared to today's offerings. Indeed, OneGreatFamily.com has added a lot of new functionality in the past nine years. However, the basic concept remains the same: one central database is stored on a central Web server and is accessed remotely by all of OneGreatFamily.com's customers. The required software is also stored on the company's servers and is then downloaded to the customer's computer as needed. Any new software updates are installed on the customer's servers and then are automatically downloaded and installed on the customer's computers the next time they log in. No manual intervention is required by the customer.
OneGreatFamily.com's application dictates that all users share the same database. In fact, as you enter more and more information about your ancestors, going backwards in time, the odds are greatly increased that you will find records about those ancestors already entered by someone else. OneGreatFamily.com is great at helping newcomers find additional ancestors! This can be either a good thing or a bad thing, depending upon one's viewpoint.
Indeed, some of the data within that database may be wrong but such errors can be identified and easily corrected by appending additional information onto the existing record. The old data is never deleted but anyone may offer a “second opinion,” complete with source citations. A third genealogist who later finds the record in question sees both opinions and the accompanying evidence, if any.
OneGreatFamily.com costs $75 a year and must be renewed every year.
Another online genealogy application appeared a few years later as a true SaaS implementation. FamilyTreeExplorer.com (formerly known as PedigreeSoft.com), is a complete software and database package that works equally well on Windows, Macintosh, and Linux systems. Rather than sharing one huge database amongst all customers, FamilyTreeExplorer.com gives each customer his or her own, personal database. In use, FamilyTreeExplorer.com operates in much the same manner as most genealogy programs of the past twenty years or more. The primary difference is that data and software is stored on a remote server someplace on the Internet, not on the user's local hard drive. The end user may grant read-only access or even read/write access to others, if desired. However, all data remains under the control of the person who first became a FamilyTreeExplorer.com customer and created the initial account.
The FamilyTreeExplorer.com software is also stored on the centralized server but is downloaded to the end user's computer as needed. Again, any software updates are performed by the company's systems personnel and then is automatically downloaded to each user's computer as needed. No intervention is required by the end user. All data is backed up centrally on a regular basis.
The basic FamilyTreeExplorer.com service is available free of charge but the company plans to charge fees for advanced services as they become available.
Newer Cloud Computing Genealogy Products
Two newer services have appeared in recent years that vary somewhat from the “software as a service” business model. The Next Generation and PhpGedView are two web-based genealogy applications that run on web servers and support one or more simultaneous users who connect via the web. What is different with these two is that there is no central company installing the software onto web servers and managing the databases. Each customer must either install the software onto a web server or arrange for someone else to do that for him. Several hosting companies will be glad to install the software for you onto their servers for prices as low as $5 a month.
Once installed, each program accesses its own database, typically one that is stored on the same web server. These programs excel at multi-user capabilities and are very popular with “group projects” in which a family society or an informal group of distant cousins are working together on genealogy research projects.
Most of the software as a service products that I have seen do not yet have all the functionality of the better free-standing genealogy programs. Most are limited in terms of reports, in search capabilities, or in the many other options typically found in computer software.
PhpGedView is available free of charge while The Next Generation costs a modest $29. Of course, you will also need system-level access to a web server in order to use either product.
Undoubtedly the largest project of all is the NewFamilySearch implemented by the Church of Latter-day Saints of Jesus Christ (the Mormons). This project is sill in beta and is still evolving, but thousands of people are using it every day. NewFamilySearch is a true software as a service offering: the end user opens a web browser, logs onto the site, and performs all functions in that web browser. NewFamilySearch is the replacement for the Mormon Church's aging Personal Ancestral File software and is planned to eventually perform all the functions of that program and more.
Best of all, NewFamilySearch accesses a single, shared database that contains family information and stories about millions of deceased individuals. Indeed, NewFamilySearch is a true “cloud computing” application and does appear to be the wave of the future.
The software developers at NewFamilySearch have also included application programming interfaces (APIs) that allow other genealogy programs to access the same data. In theory, any Windows or Macintosh or Linux program running in a computer that is connected to the Internet can access the data in NewFamilySearch. In fact, even a program running on another web server could access the data on the NewFamilySearch servers. Of course, that assumes that the software developers who created the other programs have properly written software that utilizes the APIs.
NewFamilySearch is presently in beta test and does not yet have all the features of other genealogy products. Access to the product during beta test is available only to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and to several thousand other invited guests. NewFamilySearch will always be available free of charge.
The Newest Cloud Computing Genealogy Products
The newest offerings defy the concept of “software as a service.” Perhaps we should coin a new phrase: “Data as a Service.”
Both Ancestral Quest version 12 and RootsMagic version 4 are Windows programs that are installed in the traditional manner in desktop and laptop computers. Both programs maintain their own databases on the computer's local hard drive(s). However, both programs also have the capability to access data stored on the NewFamilySearch web site. Data may easily be copied in either direction: if you find new information on NewFamilySearch about previously-unknown ancestors, you may copy that data directly into the local databases of either Ancestral Quest or RootsMagic. Likewise, if you have information in your local database that does not yet appear in the central NewFamilySearch database, you may add part or all of the information you have about those individuals with a few mouseclicks.
Ancestral Quest and RootsMagic now combine the best of both worlds: local databases, high-powered genealogy software with a plethora of reports and other advanced features, and yet also offer read/write access to the huge database of NewFamilySearch.
The Future of Genealogy Cloud Computing
I am not aware of any available Macintosh or Linux programs that access the APIs of NewFamilySearch. I suspect that such programs will be available within a year or two, however.
Software as a service is spreading throughout the genealogy world in more or less the same manner as it does in other applications. Whether discussing Google Apps, Zoho.com, Salesforce.com, or NewFamilySearch, the concept of cloud computing makes sense for thousands of computer users who either cannot or prefer not to perform software upgrades and database backups. Use of cloud computing allows each user to focus on the data. I'd suggest that is a good thing.
The future of cloud computing looks rosy, both in genealogy and elsewhere.
FamilyTreeExplorer.com (formerly known as PedigreeSoft.com) may be found at http://www.FamilyTreeExplorer.com
The Next Generation may be found at: http://lythgoes.net/genealogy/software.php
PhpGedView may be found at http://www.phpgedview.net
NewFamilySearch may be found at: https://new.familysearch.org/en/action/unsec/welcome
Ancestral Quest may be found at: http://www.ancquest.com
RootsMagic may be found at http://www.rootsmagic.com