Cloud computing

Column “Dork Talk” published on Saturday 4th October 2008 in The Guardian “Dork Talk” – The Guardian headline.

Stephen Fry explains the principles of cloud computing and recommends a few services

I first heard about the principles of what is now called the “cloud” but was then called “network computing” at a talk given many years ago by Larry Ellison. Ellison’s fortune (he is one of the richest men on the planet) came from Oracle, a leading database and “enterprise” computing company. Enterprise software and computing can be thought of as a kind of proactive intranet, a closed system that “powers” (don’t you just hate the current use of that verb?) everything from business databases to the corporate accounts of BlackBerry users.

Enterprise systems will tend to hold applications and files on servers. A server is a dedicated storage and processing computer designed transparently to handle tasks for a network of individual “client” computers, the ones humans actually use. Think of client computers as having screens and keyboards, while servers are stored in racks. The old model of computing required applications to be installed on desk/laptops, each machine an autonomous island. Bridges were built between them by disk-swapping and LAN connection. Even today, most of us will use our computers this way, but now with memory sticks instead of floppies and the internet instead of LAN. People often save data online in the ether or “cloud” simply by keeping it on their gmail or hotmail folders. How many times have you sent yourself a photo just so you can have a copy of it online? But many of us are beginning to dabble in true online applications and storage, in cloud computing. The advantage is that files can be created, stored and accessed from any online computer in the world. The network holds not only your files, but the applications that create them, while your computer is, as in the early days, little more than a dumb terminal. A stolen laptop becomes a nuisance like a lost chequebook – a bit of password changing and ringing round, perhaps, but the valuable data are stored elsewhere. We save to the cloud and only back up to our computer.

If you want to put a head in the clouds, I recommend a number of services. Google has a full online office suite, but if you feel that the big G is powerful enough, thank you, then offers a similar, if not even richer, range. Web applications can now mimic desktop software, so the kinds of keyboard shortcuts used on your desktop spreadsheet programme, for example, are now possible on the web equivalent. For those too bohemian to be attracted by anything smelling of an office, there is, which gives users a customisable desktop and Instant Messaging tools – worth a look just to show you how far the online virtual desktop environment can go.

Apple’s .Mac service allowed online storage for years in the shape of a virtual “iDisk” before it was recently rebranded as MobileMe (Mac or PC), which horrible name was attended by a spectacularly flaky launch. The service, now stable and working, allows contacts and calendar information as well as email to be “pushed” – in other words, arrive without you having to collect it. My PA and I each have my diary on our iPhones. When we amend an entry, the alteration more or less instantly appears on the other’s phone as well as on the MobileMe online web apps and all computers logged into the same account. There are problems: full synchronisation with Google’s more function-rich calendar relies on third-party utilities; alterations and additions are not “flagged”; the push sometimes needs a push itself in the form of a manual synchronisation, but it points to how things will be. is an online file-storage service that comes with excellent applications for iPhone, Windows Mobile, BlackBerry and, shortly no doubt, Google Android. If you have coverage, you can access all the files on all your computers. They don’t even need to be online, for all is on the server, all is in the cloud.

Google, Zoho and Jooce cost nothing. MobileMe and SugarSync charge, so I suggest taking advantage of their free trial offers. Security? Ah, well, that’s a whole other ball of wax. Are your jewels safer at home or in someone else’s safety deposit box? Questions don’t get mooter.

Initials of the week

LAN Local area network. The original pre-web ‘intranet’, a localised network, typically connected by ethernet cables.

This blog was posted in Features

17 comments on “Cloud computing”

  1. One service you missed Stephen was Dropbox ( It’s a cross-platform (PC, Mac and Linux) application that installs and integrates itself into your system by creating a “My Dropbox” folder.

    Every time you put a file in your dropbox, and application picks it up and stores it on your online dropbox which uses Amazon’s S3 service. The free service gives you 2Gb of storage or 50Gb for $9.99 a month/$99 a year.

    Whats great about it is you can install dropbox on any number of computers and all your files will be synced between them, so you never need to forget that file on a USB stick again! My girlfriend loves the service as she can use it to keep all her Uni stuff in.

  2. Conga says:

    This article reminds me of some of my math teachers who could reduce/turn around/ the most complicated topics to simple concepts. I was wondering if this ability could be a core element in writing comedy.

  3. callum says:

    digitalspaghetti beat me to the punch – i’ve been using dropbox for months now and its biggest plus is that “it just works” – those days of punching holes in firewalls and router configuration are gone – install the tiny client on a variety of machine at home, office, etc. and get access to everything as if it were local.

    the *other* huge plus is that anything you put there is versioned – this means that each time you edit a file, it remembers the changes and at any point (haven’t checked to see how far back it goes) you can revert to an older copy – as a software engineer, this make for editing code in your drop box folder a joy.

    agree with conga too – normally commentary that reduced in complexity for the masses becomes worthless due to its simplicity – you get the balance just right.

  4. Karellen says:

    Interesting that having only recently wished GNU a happy birthday, you’d write this column so soon after Richard Stallman has prominently warned of the dangers of cloud computing, relying on software you do not own, and keeping your data in places that you could be prevented from accessing. That’s even if you own the data you put there, which according to the cloud’s TOS (you *have* read the TOS carefully, right?) you might not.

  5. bnt says:

    I was going to mention Dropbox too, but I see I’ve been beaten to it. One more thing I ought to mention is that it also acts as a transparent backup service. If you delete or damage a file, and that gets replicated, you can undo the damage, or go back to one of the earlier versions of the file.

  6. thaytan says:

    The other danger with Internet-based services, beside leaving your data in someone else’s hands, is that your productivity relies completely on the availability of an Internet connection. I’m not frequently without Internet these days, but when it does fail, it usually does so for hours or even days. A storm took out our phone line recently, and it took 10 days to get phone and ADSL service restored.

    With a replicated data service, that’s not too bad – you take your laptop somewhere else, sync up your data and continue working. If you’re relying on web applications, you have to be somewhere else where there’s a ‘net connection just to get any work done at all.

  7. Wire_Trip says:

    Ah the lovely cyclical nature of things. I remember in the early eighties using applications on an IBM 370 mainframe (‘cloud’) under VM/SP (virtualisation) through a dumb terminal (thin-client/server). I also remember accessing my bank through Prestel. All that’s really different now is that the wires have gone (mostly).

    I suspect that in 10 years’ time we’ll be right back at ‘island’ computing but we’ll have access to all our data since we’ll probably be wearing it (possibly even ‘internally’ ;-).

    PS I reckon the next big thing could be the Microwriter chord keyboard on mobile devices (its patent expires soon…).

  8. janequigley says:

    @thaytan – many internet-based services have desktop applications that allow you to work offline. That way, you still can get things done without being connected.

    I also recommend DropBox and utilize some of Zoho’s offerings. I do love 37signal’s productivity apps (all cloud-based) and have used them for years (at many companies) without any issues. They all work on my iPhone, have desktop (mac for me) apps and have tremendous support.

  9. josimh says:

    I’m very sorry I have nothing to say on this particular article, but am delighted to have finally caught up with the 21st century and discovered this page and the podcasts, which provide me with very welcome and essential parentheses in my busy life in Spain. Having been a fan of Mr Fry since my youth, encouraged by my brother, it is wonderful to realise finally that you are not so very far away, after my 11 years in Madrid! I’ve even become a fan of QI, and look forward to plunging into this page whenever I can. Thank you for these necessary doses of humour and intelligence which help me maintain my connection with my roots. ¡Enhorabuena!

  10. jlozinski says:

    Just a note on lose the net, loose the cloud. Google docs provides their google gears which enables syncronisation of your docs and the app to your machine, so if you happen to be offline, you can still edit and then next time there’s net access you get them synced back up..

    Its not ideal. as you can’t create a document that wasnt there.. but it does make it a little more workable.

  11. Danrok says:

    Be warned that many online programs such as Google Apps will store data in another country, the USA in the case of Google.

    If your documents and files contain other people’s details, such as those of your customers, then you will most likely need each customer’s permission to export that data to another country. If you don’t have their permission, then you may find yourself on the wrong side of the law.

  12. gadgetgirl says:

    It sounds like you are having more luck with MobileMe than me. I still have problems with multiday events and calendar synchronisation is much less than more or less instant. Push email occasionally disappears too. However, when it does work it is lovely.

    My favourite cloud service is Evernote, it syncs beautifully via a web account with my work xp machine, home macbook and is easily accessible via an iPhone application.

  13. Wingrove says:

    Re: Dropbox, I’d also add: which I’ve started using having heard about it on Adam Curry’s Daily Source Code podcast; it’s now his main inbox for listener contributed material.

    I really like Stephen’s article. It’s a simple, clean introduction to Cloud Computing with great pointers to the best sites. It also demonstrates that awareness of “The Cloud” is starting to reach mainstream media. But it’s still very early days and I think the cloud is ill-defined with the big players (Amazon, Google, Microsoft and watch out for Facebook) fighting to make it their own (with their own definitions).

    Large enterprise need to be very careful in the choices they make now, especially in the virtualisation space, on their road to the cloud (whatever it turns out to be). Lock-in will be a huge problem. However, they have to move fast; the cloud makes it extremely easy for smaller, agile startups and businesses to establish a huge, scaleable infrastructure very quickly. Large existing enterprise are like oil-tankers with huge momentum and investments in the dedicated servers and datacentres. It’s hard for them to change course but they’re at risk of being leapfrogged by the agile competition.

    In short, even during the current financial and econonic toubles, IT infrastructure is going to be an exciting place to work.


  14. mralistair says:

    Also worth noting is the excellent pixlr which does an admirable job of imitating Photoshop for all those away from home image editing needs.

  15. mrwebservice says:

    Rather bizarre to see Mr Fry waxing technological here. There are many strings to his bow. Some of them are clearly steel strings. Ha-ha.
    Of course, business-to-consumer cloud-computing is rather easier to get a handle on than business-to-business enterprise models (yikes). These are where the real “risks” lie in outsourcing data. As Stephen says, it’s a moot point, but frankly any mooterings are chiefly a result of people’s ignorance on the matter. I’d rather have my data looked after by a private company that knows what it’s doing.
    For anyone who’s remotely interested in cloud services I have a blog on the subject at my Web Service blog.

  16. jasonslater says:

    The notion of Cloud Computing certainly levels the playing field for both applications and operating systems – interesting times are ahead of us.

    Hopefully you may find this cartoon fun

  17. matt40k says:

    I love the idea of Cloud computering, the idea is amazing the fact it could anyone access from any computer device. However my only question is, where is the off button?

    You can get broadband sent over your electrical sockets, but, what happens when your fridge is on the net and there is a rogue virus attacking them? How do you disconnect the fridge without losing power? How do you stop someone accessing your part of the cloud system?

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