One of the newer buzzwords in the online world is "cloud computing." You can probably find dozens of definitions of this new technology, but I think the simplest is that cloud computing refers to a computer application running on a distant computer. Your local desktop or laptop works as a "remote terminal," with your local video screen showing what is happening on the distant computer and your local keyboard and mouse being used as input devices for the same distant computer. All the computing power and disk storage is being provided by a powerful computer or perhaps a bank of powerful computers in some distant data center. Your local desktop or laptop simply provides your "view" of that distant application. You can use the application program running in the distant computer in the same manner that you run applications in your own computer. However, you benefit from the power and storage capabilities of those distant, powerful computers.
Note: For simplicity's sake, I will often state “a distant computer.” However, it might not be a single computer, and it might not be in one single location. Many cloud computing applications operate on banks of distant computers that may be located in different data centers around the world. Those details will be invisible to you and will remain unimportant for this discussion.
The word “cloud” refers to the Internet. I am sure you have seen various drawings over the years depicting home computers connecting to distant web servers via the Internet. The Internet is almost always drawn as a cloud to indicate there is a massive collection of routers, switches, and cabling connecting the computers. However, all the complexity of the Internet is hidden from the user. Therefore, it is a cloud. The phrase “cloud computing” really means “running programs on distant computers via the Internet.”
In cloud computing, the application you use might be a word processor, a database, a spreadsheet program, a sales management program (such as Salesforce.com), or a genealogy program. Whatever the application, you use it in almost the same way as any other program you have used in the past. The only significant difference is that the program sits in a distant computer, not in your local system. Most cloud computing applications can be accessed from any Windows, Macintosh, or Linux computer. The local operating system is not important when using most cloud computing applications. (There are a few exceptions, however.)
In cloud computing, another new term creeps into the vocabulary: provider. A cloud computing provider is a company that provides processing services on the Internet. That is, the provider company owns the distant computers and provides the software that runs on those systems. If you want to use cloud computing, you start by establishing an account with a provider of the application(s) you wish to use. You then connect to the Internet, connect to the provider's system(s), and then run the application(s) offered by the provider.
If you haven't yet tried cloud computing, I'd suggest you experiment with Google Docs (http://docs.google.com) or Zoho Docs (http://docs.zoho.com). Google only has a few applications: a word processor, a spreadsheet program, and a presentation program (a bit like PowerPoint). All of the Google applications are available free of charge. Zoho Docs has three similar programs plus a lot more, such as document management applications, wikis, email programs, online planning, web conferencing, project management, and more. Google's applications are all available free of charge, as are most of the Zoho applications. The few Zoho applications that are fee-based are mostly business applications and are not relevant to this discussion anyway. The Zoho applications tend to be a bit more powerful with more features than those of Google Docs.
Why would anyone want to use an online word processor or spreadsheet program? Good question! I can point to the capabilities to share files with your friends or co-workers, the fact that backups are made automatically without your involvement, or the concept that new software upgrades are automatic and immediate, again without your involvement. However, most computer owners already have word processors, and those who have a need for spreadsheets or presentation programs also probably have obtained such programs already. If not, we all have a wide variety of such programs to choose from, many of them available free of charge.
Convincing people to switch to online word processors, spreadsheet programs, and presentation programs strikes me as an uphill battle. The picture changes quickly, however, when you begin to discuss programs that not everyone has or programs that cost a lot of money.
I would not have written this article three or four years ago. Cloud computing was not an option at that time for several reasons. First, almost all computers that did connect to the Internet a few years ago had an “umbilical cord.” They required an attached cable to make the Internet connection – either an ethernet connection or a dial-up modem. Connections at that time were also slower, producing slow response when exchanging large amounts of data or repainting display screens.
Today, more than 80% of all active Internet users in the U.S. connect via broadband connections. (See http://www.websiteoptimization.com/bw/0703/.) The percentage is even higher in Japan, Korea, and most European nations.
More than 15.6 percent of U.S. cell phone owners now use wireless connections to the Internet (see http://moconews.net/article/419-us-takes-top-nod-for-mobile-internet-usage-report/), and that percentage is growing rapidly. You can now access cloud computing applications from coffee shops, restaurants, commuter trains, or even while traveling down the Interstate highway. (I do hope that someone else is driving!)
Access to cloud computing applications on the Internet from any location is becoming as popular and as easy as access from home.
One of the early commercial successes in cloud computing was Salesforce.com. Prior to the arrival of this service, the only practical method for a company to automate its sales process was to purchase an (expensive) software product, install it, and then pay a small army of programmers to customize it for that company's needs. Frequently, this also meant purchasing and installing new (expensive) computer servers and huge multi-user disk arrays. Once the new hardware and the sales automation software was placed into operation, the company had to pay for ongoing maintenance, backups, and future customizations. Many companies paid $100,000 or more to purchase and implement sales automation products such as Interact Commerce's ACT!, SAP, Epiphany, GoldMine, or Siebel.
Salesforce.com has revolutionized all this. Now any company can purchase an account on Salesforce.com for a fraction of the cost of new hardware and software. Some small companies use Salesforce.com for a fee of $50 a month or so. The subscribing company still must pay for customizations. Once operational, the company pays for the amount of computing power and storage space it uses. To be sure, for a large company with an active sales organization, the online charges can run into many thousands of dollars. However, with Salesforce.com there is no upfront capital investment in hardware and software. The ongoing expenses of maintaining the host systems, making backups, and similar systems tasks are absorbed by Salesforce.com, which can spread those expenses across its entire customer base. While each subscribing company does pay a portion of those expenses, the costs per company are typically much cheaper than requiring each company to pay for similar costs on their own computers.
Salesforce.com has become a multi-million dollar business in only a few short years, thanks primarily to its business model that embraces cloud computing. Other companies are following Salesforce.com's example, and we are seeing more and more applications in the business world moving to cloud computing for very practical reasons.
The switch has been slower for consumer applications, however. I suspect that the word processors and other applications of Google Docs and Zoho Docs were created first only because they were easy to implement. I doubt if Google or Zoho ever expected to revolutionize word processing or to take away all the customers from Microsoft Word. Indeed, those companies have not yet done so, and cloud computing remains an interesting but not yet mainstream process for most consumers. I suspect that is changing, however.
One factor in the growth of cloud computing is the emergence of netbooks. Netbooks are low-powered, inexpensive laptop computers that have become enormously successful in the past year. (“Netbook” is a contraction of the words “Internet notebook.”) Netbooks are selling by the tens of thousands while the sales of higher-powered laptop and desktop computers are dropping rapidly. Today's netbooks sell for $250 to $400 and those prices continue to drop. You can even buy a refurbished netbook for as little as $179.99 at http://www.geeks.com/details.asp?invtid=EEEPC900A-WFBB01-R&cat=NBB. I own a very similar netbook computer and love it.
Netbooks are a “natural” for cloud computing: the low-powered netbook only has to act as a terminal, providing access to high-powered computers in distant data centers. All netbook computers include wired and wireless (wi-fi) networking connections, making it easy to connect to the Internet. I can tell you that the $179 Asus Eee works well with almost all the cloud computing applications that I have tried.
Cloud computing works equally well on expensive, multi-media desktop computers and on inexpensive, netbook computers that weigh less than two pounds and cost less than $300.
Comment: In some ways, cloud computing is very old fashioned. Ask anyone who was involved with computer time sharing in the 1970s. As the saying goes, “what goes around, comes around.”
Looking at genealogy applications, we see that cloud computing is in its infancy. There are only two true cloud computing genealogy applications today: FamilyTreeExplorer.com (formerly known as PedigreeSoft.com) and OneGreatFamily.com. FamilyTreeExplorer.com has not enjoyed much commercial success in the marketplace. Indeed, most genealogists have probably never heard of FamilyTreeExplorer.com. OneGreatFamily.com has been more successful and continues to attract new customers.
While both products qualify as "cloud computing" services, the two are very different in operation. The most notable difference is in the decision of whether or not to share data. OneGreatFamily.com has only one database, and all customers share it. Everyone can see everyone else's data and can link their families together when they discover information about common ancestors and other relatives that other customers of the service may already have entered. FamilyTreeExplorer.com, however, provides a separate, isolated database for each customer. There is no linking to pre-existing data in FamilyTreeExplorer.com. FamilyTreeExplorer.com does allow the customer to grant access to others, if he or she wishes to do so. Nobody can ever see the customer's data, however, until he or she grants such access to others on an individual-by-individual basis.
No discussion of genealogy cloud computing is complete without a mention of WeRelate.org, New FamilySearch.org, The Next Generation, or PhpGedView. These products vary widely in design and implementation, but all of them allow multiple people to run genealogy applications in distant computers. In addition, the latest versions of RootsMagic and AncestralQuest have the capability to exchange data with cloud computing databases. However, neither of these last two products uses cloud computing for its core functionality.
So how does a genealogist use cloud computing? Let me describe a typical scenario. This already exists today:
A consumer decides to enter his or her family tree data into a genealogy program to aid in keeping track of the information and to create various reports, as needed. The consumer may or may not be interested in matching data with others so as to share information with distant relatives.
In a cloud computing scenario, the consumer creates an account on an online genealogy software provider that uses computers installed in a distant data center. Such an account costs $6.50 a month or less on today's genealogy cloud computing providers. The consumer then enters data manually or perhaps uploads a GEDCOM file, if such a file is already available. Reports are available and (optionally) there may be ways of comparing the newly-entered data with other records entered previously by other subscribers to the service.
In other words, the consumer uses the cloud computing application in almost exactly the same manner as today's user of The Master Genealogist, RootsMagic, Legacy Family Tree, AncestralQuest, Reunion, MacFamilyTree, Personal Ancestral File, or any of dozens of other genealogy programs. The major differences are:
- The consumer does not pay for a program to be installed in his or her own computer. Instead, he or she signs up for a free or low-cost account on a cloud computing service.
- All data is stored on the distant computers, not on the local hard drive.
Cloud computing application offers the following advantages:
- Shared access. Most cloud computing applications allow the user to share information with others and (optionally) allows others to add even more information to an existing database. This is perfect for group efforts in which two, three, or even dozens of people are working together on a single project. If you have ever tried to coordinate data exchanges amongst two or three dozen researchers in a family society, all working on the same or related projects, especially if those researchers are using a variety of Windows and Macintosh genealogy programs, you will quickly appreciate the advantages of everyone simultaneously accessing one shared database that works equally well with all operating systems.
- Automatic backups and other systems maintenance tasks. Let the pros handle those headaches. Consumers should not be forced to become systems administrators, a task that most of them are ill-prepared to handle.
- Software upgrades. Again, let the pros do it. Installing one upgrade on one bank of computers in a data center is simpler and has a higher chance of success than installing thousands of upgrades in individual computers. The next time each user logs on to a cloud computing application, he or she is automatically using the new software.
- While most genealogy cloud computing providers do charge fees, the cost may be significantly lower than purchasing software and frequent upgrades for software installed in your desktop or laptop computer.
Of course, nothing is ever perfect. Cloud computing also has several disadvantages. The most notable disadvantages seem to be:
- Security. When placing your data onto someone else's servers, you are dependent on that provider to protect your data. Many providers handle security well, but they might not do it in a manner that you want.
- Limited freedom of users. When you use cloud-based applications, you are dependent upon the features offered by the vendors. To be sure, you can switch online providers in the same way you switch locally-installed programs, or you can revert from a cloud-based application to a locally-installed application; however, such conversions generally are not simple.
- Use of jump drives, scanners, and other plug-in peripherals is a bit more complex when accessing a cloud computing system that is located thousands of miles away. Such access is not impossible, simply more complex than performing the same tasks locally. Also, the cloud computing provider may not support local peripherals, such as scanners.
- Political issues. Traditional applications that run in a single computer are subject to the laws and customs of the country where that computer is installed. However, when a customer in one country purchases services from a cloud computing company that is chartered in a second country and which uses servers in a third country and perhaps additional servers in a fourth, fifth, or even sixth country, which laws apply? (Skype is a present-day example of such a multi-national cloud computing provider. While it is a wholly-owned division of an American company (eBay), Skype is incorporated in Luxembourg and has servers in Estonia, England, Sweden, the Czech Republic, and elsewhere. Skype has customers all over the world and is even more popular in third-world countries than in the more developed nations. When defining telecommunications tariffs, which laws apply to Skype? If a data breach occurs, which country has the authority to investigate and even prosecute?)
Cloud computing strikes me as a very logical “next step” for genealogy uses. Part of the appeal of cloud computing is the ability to share one very large database amongst thousands of users. Another huge advantage is that of operating system transparency: software developers can create one application that will run equally well on Windows, Macintosh, and Linux systems. That is enticing for companies that produce genealogy software: the developers can write one application and make it available to nearly all computer users, regardless of what kind of computers customers use. The result is a much larger potential market than writing software for only one operating system. Finally, there is the capability to let computer professionals take care of all the systems-related tasks, such as making backups and installing new upgrades.
I suspect that the last reason is one of the best things about running consumer software on cloud computing. Every year I hear many stories about corrupted databases, accidental erasures, and other things that cause loss of genealogy data. Cloud computing solves most of those problems because systems professionals are tasked with performing the needed backup and maintenance functionality. Data corruption or loss should be a very rare occurrence with cloud computing. Cloud computing providers typically have very good backup processes.
Software upgrades are easier, too. Which is better, shipping 10,000 new upgrades to 10,000 existing customers and then answering the phones when several thousand of them call for assistance, or shipping one upgrade to one data center and having the systems professionals there install it one time? With cloud computing, there is no need for each customer to install his or her own upgrades. Since the customers are all sharing the same application, they all see and use the upgrade the next time they log on. Those customers are free to focus on the data. I would suggest that this should be what genealogy computing is all about: focusing on the data.
Cloud computing genealogy applications are in their infancy today. The few that are available today have primitive reporting capabilities. They also do not support multimedia scrapbooks very well and may not have all the other features found in the typical desktop genealogy programs. Nevertheless, this is all temporary. Like any other application in computing history, new features will be added if the product becomes popular and if customers demand such features.
The future of cloud computing looks bright, both in the genealogy marketplace and elsewhere. As we all become more connected, and as we all become more mobile with two-pound netbooks connected to the Internet via wireless networking, cloud computing will become more and more popular. The data stored will be protected by systems professionals.
My genealogy data is “in the cloud.” Is yours?