You’ve probably heard of this thing called “The Cloud.” It’s really just a romanticized name for the Internet, but specifically it refers to a couple things:
- Applications that are stored on and run from remote locations. You don’t install them. Also known as WebApps.
- Public or private data stored on remote servers instead of on your local hard drive or removable media.
The concept isn’t new by any means. A decade ago WebApps were called “Application Hosting” and Cloud Drives or Cloud Storage were given the boring name “Remote Storage.” Microsoft (ironically) was a very early entrant into the Cloud when they launched a then experimental hosted version of Microsoft Office. At that time I was working for a technology company that had banked its future on a hosted suite of java web applications, content management services, communications services, and remote storage aimed at businesses, business to business exchanges, vertical integrated markets, etc. The entire thing was ready to leave beta testing and go live at the end of 2000 when the company imploded (how that happened is a saga in and of itself).
It’s easy to forget just how ahead of the curve that project was. This was three years before mySAP lunched, six years before Google Docs, seven years before Microsoft SharePoint. It also had aspects of both public and private social networking years before LinkedIn, Friendster, MySpace, or Facebook (at the time SixDegrees was really the only social networking model). It was, perhaps, because the idea was ahead of the curve that the company tanked. Few people at the time could really wrap their heads around what it was or what it was supposed to do.
The other problem my former employer had is one that Cloud proponents are facing even today – trusting your data to a remote third party. The company I used to work for found enormous resistance from businesses wary of uploading their private documents to a remote server they didn’t own, manage, or even know where it was physically located. I don’t think there’s really much less resistance to the idea today than there was ten years ago. In fact, maybe even more, as the public is much more aware of data breaches and how damaging they can be. Ultimately there will probably be a lot documents nobody will be comfortable uploading into the Cloud, so there will always be some need for local – or at least physically portable – data storage.
Another option is to maintain a “Private Cloud” that the user controls. The still-in-development open source alternative to Facebook known as Disapora offers users an option to host their own social networking server. So, instead of sending your pictures up to Facebook or Picasa you send them to your own server space, which is shared with whomever you want (or don’t want). There’s still a possibility you’d be dealing with a third party if you used a web hosting service (or Diaspora’s own servers), but key differences are over who is claiming ownership of the data and who is responsible for maintaining it (that would be you, not the third party). Of course you could create a “Local Cloud” of sorts too, which involves setting up a server – or servers – on your LAN and using it as Network Attached Storage. Then you have access to whatever you’ve stored there from any computer on your network, as well as any devices outside your LAN that you allow VPN access.
On the other hand, especially with the generation that has grown up with Social Networking as part of their lives, there is a much lower expectation of personal privacy, so it will probably be a lot easier to convince younger people to entrust their personal information to the cloud. Even some older generations will probably be okay with entrusting some of their “private” data to the cloud, in fact many already have done so. How many of us have webmail accounts with an inbox full of most of our correspondence? How many of us have a LiveJournal, Facebook, or MySpace, or Blogger page? Share our photos online? We even file our taxes electronically these days, processing them through a third party like H&R Block, Quicken, or Intuit. Clearly we’re becoming more and more comfortable sharing data online that not all that long ago would have been considered too private to ever upload.
And that is why the Cloud will ultimately win.