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 zoho.com 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 jooce.com, 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.
SugarSync.com 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.