The following is a Plus Edition article written by and copyright by Dick Eastman.
Do you use Dropbox to store files? Do you get your e-mail at Gmail or Yahoo Mail or Hotmail? Are you experimenting with Apple's iCloud? Doing work with Google Apps, formerly called Google Docs? If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, congratulations! You are a cloud user.
I often receive messages from newsletter readers or read comments from readers posted at the end of articles in this newsletter stating that they are afraid to use the cloud. The most common reason is because the person doesn't yet understand the cloud and is afraid of security problems or other possible issues. Yet, these same people often are already safely and securely using the cloud every day.
Gmail and Yahoo Mail and Hotmail all replace old-fashioned software we formerly installed in our computers. Those of us who were around in the pre-Gmail and pre-Yahoo days well remember installing email programs, such as Eudora, Outlook, Thunderbird, Netscape Messenger, Zimbra, and Pegasus. Most worked well but had limitations. For instance, if you wanted to use two or more computers to read and write email messages, such as the desktop at home and the laptop when traveling and a computer at the office, keeping them in sync was a problem. They were also susceptible to data losses, either by hardware malfunctions or by user error.
In contrast, today's cloud-based applications do not require the installation of software in your computer. All software is installed on web servers someplace, and data is likewise stored in the company's servers (although these email services usually have an option to also store messages on your hard drive). Hardware malfunctions are almost unheard-of as the company keeps backups and restores damaged messages almost invisibly to the user. Even user errors are minimized; if a user clicks on DELETE, the message is usually moved to a Trash folder where it is kept for another 30 days before being truly deleted. The user can still recover accidentally-deleted messages during that 30-day window.
Today's cloud-based email services typically are more reliable and more resistant to crashes than were the user-installed email programs of yesteryear. In addition, unlike email software that most of us purchased years ago, the more popular cloud-based email services of today are available free of charge.
Google Apps, formerly called Google Docs, is a zero-cost substitute for old-fashioned word processing programs (including Microsoft Word), spreadsheet programs (like Excel) and presentation programs (like PowerPoint). Generally speaking, these cloud-based applications do not have all the power nor the speed of competitive software installed on a local hard drive. Then again, they don't have the price tags of those locally-installed programs. (Google Apps are free to private users although corporate use requires payment of modest fees.) Given the prices involved, millions of users have found that Google Apps are more than "good enough" for casual use.
All of the above services mimic traditional computer applications except that they are cloud services—programs that run on the internet. Dropbox stores files and (optionally) copies those files to other computers, typically to other computers owned by the same person. The storage and copying all happens in the cloud.
Traditional computer applications usually have been expensive as well as complicated to install, configure, and maintain. The amount and variety of hardware and software required to run them are daunting. Most installed programs run only one operating system—usually Windows or Macintosh or occasionally Linux. You needed to be a computer guru to install, configure, test, run, secure, and update these programs. Speaking of updates, most software companies charge money for significant updates although smaller releases consisting of "bug fixes" may be available free of charge.
With cloud computing, you eliminate those headaches because you are not managing the software; that’s the responsibility of the company that provides the cloud-based service. You no longer have to troubleshoot software problems or install updates. Pricing is also cheaper in most cases. Cloud computing works like a utility: you only pay for what you need; upgrades are automatic; and scaling up or down is easy.
Cloud-based apps can be up and running within minutes, without installation, and they almost always cost less. With a cloud app, you usually just open a browser, log in, customize the app, and start using it.
A major advantage of cloud computing is that (with a few exceptions) it makes no difference whether users have a Windows or Macintosh computer. In fact, most also work on Linux, Chromebook, Android, and Apple iOS devices. Even better, if the computer dies, or if the owner decides to upgrade to a newer computer, there is no data loss. All data is stored on powerful web servers that are backed up more or less constantly and are monitored closely. Cloud-based services have proven to be very reliable despite fires, floods, blizzards, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, and other major disasters.
The above are examples of the more commonly-used cloud applications. Indeed, there are thousands more cloud-based applications, and most are designed for specific uses. Businesses are running all kinds of specialized applications in the cloud, including customer relationship management (CRM), HR, accounting, and much more.
Some of the world’s largest companies moved their applications to the cloud with salesforce.com after rigorously testing the security and reliability of the service. Salesforce.com now serves the sales departments of more than 100,000 companies. Those companies also found that salesforce.com can support hundreds or even thousands of users at prices that are much cheaper than building a company's own data center, purchasing servers, purchasing software, and hiring support personnel to keep everything running. Best of all, the salesperson can access the needed information and even enter new orders from any location—from the office, from a hotel room, or from the customer's office. All of this is done with industrial-grade security.
While "cloud computing" may be a new buzzword, it is based on technology that has been available for years. In the early 1990s, the budding Internet finally had enough computers attached to it that academics began thinking seriously about how to connect those machines together to create massive, shared pools of storage and computing power that would be much larger than what any one institution could afford to build. This is when the idea of "the grid" began to take shape. The World Wide Web was added to the Internet at a later date, and computers then started to become easier to use.
The term "grid" is a metaphor deliberately drawn for power companies, where electric utilities provide power over a "grid" network to clients who pay on a metered basis for the electricity that they consume. The power companies may purchase power from many other companies, merge those power sources together, and then supply power to each customer, according to the needs of that customer. The customer who needs more power pays more; the customer with reduced needs pays less.
The cloud is the same basic idea as the grid, but scaled down in some ways, scaled up in others, and highly customized for the needs of each customer. Computer grids and cloud computing use a concept of "utility computing." A large number of networked computers are pooled together like a giant, virtual supercomputer or file server, and access to that pool of computing or storage resources can be sold in an on-demand, metered fashion. Some companies even supply cloud computing services free of charge, depending upon advertising or other sources of revenue to pay the bills.
Want to check email? Instead of installing software in your own computer, it is now more cost-effective to connect to Google's or Yahoo's or Microsoft's racks of thousands of servers that are shared amongst millions of users. The same is true for Google Apps, sales management programs, and, yes, even genealogy programs.
What can you do with cloud computing?
The remainder of this article is for Plus Edition subscribers only. SUBSCRIBE NOW to read this article.
If you have a Plus Edition user ID and password, you can read the full article right now at no additional charge in this web site's Plus Edition at http://eogn.com/wp/?p=28353. This article will remain online for several weeks.
If you do not remember your Plus Edition user ID or password, you can retrieve them at http://www.eogn.com/wp/ and click on "Forgot password?"
If you decide to subscribe to the Plus Edition right now, you will be able to immediately read this article online. What sort of articles can you read in the Plus Edition? Click here to find out.
For more information about subscribing to the Plus Edition of Eastman's Online Genealogy Newsletter, visit http://blog.eogn.com/eastmans_online_genealogy/plusedition.html.