How do you cloud?

“Cloud Computing” is one of those buzzword terms that’s been driving everybody nuts for a while now, at least from what I’ve seen. But what does it really mean to people? Often when a term gets thrown around enough to become a “buzzword”, it starts losing its meaning because people grow numb to it. Once that happens, you get pushback from people, even people to whom the buzzword applies.

Computing in “the Cloud” is one of those terms. Like the term or not, Cloud Computing is here, and has been here for a while now, and if you’re like most people on the Internet, it applies to you in at least some way, whether you admit it or not.

Here’s how it applies to you, and how it applies to me.

What are we talking about here?

“Cloud Computing” is defined by Wikipedia as ” Internet-based computing, whereby shared resources, software, and information are provided to computers and other devices on demand, like the electricity grid”. There’s more to it than that, but still, that sums it up pretty well.

Basically put, if you keep anything somewhere other than on your local computer, you are in effect accessing a part of the “Cloud”. This is made possible in general by the Internet, but the definition can also include any networked computer resources that centralize data or applications to be accessed from somewhere else, whether that’s over an intranet, a private bit of fiber, or a group of networks connected together privately.

Okay, so why all the buzz?

There’s no doubt about it, over the past few years, the term “Cloud Computing” has become a buzz word that has been overused, driven straight into the ground. So much so that even mention the word “cloud” in a service, or in a Linux distro and you immediately see pushback from people who are sick and tired of seeing the term bandied about (like some of the comments on this recent review of a cloud-centric Linux distro).

I think it’s pretty understandable when something gets that overused in our daily technospeak. But there’s a reason for buzz. As a concept, the Cloud is a new idea, an important development in how we as humans manage, visualize, and distribute information and access to it. It’s a paradigm shift that has only been around for a decade and a half or so on any practical scale, and with the spread of more accessible broadband for everyday folks out there, it’s difficult if not impossible to avoid its effects.

It’s important because it cuts the bonds that tie us to compartmentalized stuff. Rather than having to physically go here to access your address book, and physically go there to listen to your favorite music, and go somewhere else to read your email, it means if you need to, you can do all of those things from anywhere you are connected. With the propagation of mobile internet, for the first time in human history, everything you need is now literally at your fingertips. This is sort of a “data liberation”, in a way… it provides individuals with a lot of power. Power to get to what they need, wherever they are, and whenever they need it.

Some of the controversy is, however, not just attached to the stigma of a term being overused to the point of becoming a buzzword. A lot has been said about our society becoming too “connected”, and the concept of the Cloud is a big enabler for people becoming that way.

It’s harder to leave work at the office when you are connected via a mobile device (be it a smartphone, a laptop, or a netbook) 24/7. It can be difficult to enjoy a quiet meal with your sweetheart when you’re getting notified whenever someone you follow tweets about something that sends an SMS notification to your phone. Or an email containing a link to a funny Youtube video. Or an alert that a server is down at work.

There’s little doubt that this “constant connectivity” is making waves, and that’s understandable. I’ve known people who have really let it erode their lives and let it create a lot of stress. I think there’s a healthy balance to be had, but with something this hard to ignore that’s also this new and powerful, there is a bit of adapting people need to do in order to incorporate it into their lives with moderation.

Like anything else, it’s a tool. Used right, it can make your life easier, better, more focused. Used wrong, or overused, and it will make you an overworked, overstressed, nervous wreck. Just like anything else.

My own life in the Cloud

Like a lot of people out there, I swiftly grew sick and tired of the buzzword being used like crazy, particularly in technology articles. Everything is “Cloud this”, and “Cloud that” and “gee whiz lookit the Cloud!”.

So, also like a lot of other people, I largely ignored the term and dismissed it as a lot of hype. Until I took a closer look at what, exactly, it meant.

And then I realized that my life was already “Cloudy”, and had been, long before the term “Cloud Computing” became a buzzword.

And, if you’re reading this, I’d bet you that yours is too, even if you’re one who — like me — put up the Buzzword Shield and roll your eyes every time you see yet-another-tech-article about the Cloud.

It’s the little things that drag you in

If you use any kind of webmail, you’re technically Cloud Computing. If you use any kind of social networking at all — Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, LinkedIn, many others — you’re utilizing the Cloud, to communicate, to store photographs, messages, information about other people.

It’s deceptively easy, really. You put more and more of what you need out there, and the next thing you know, you’re Cloud Computing without even thinking much about it. “What’s John’s email address? Hang, on, he’s in my Gmail contacts.”

“You’re looking for a job? Check this out, someone I used to work for is hiring. I’ll bring up my LinkedIn updates, I just saw yesterday that they’re looking for someone like you.”

It doesn’t take much to take advantage of such a powerful way to access even simple information. Convenience is king, and the Cloud makes that more possible than ever before.

How I Cloud

A little while back, when I decided to move past the buzzwords and take a closer look at the reality of Cloud Computing, I realized how much of my own life is lived “out there”.

I use Facebook to communicate with and keep in touch with old high school friends, buddies from my Navy days, and a few out of state relatives. I can use Facebook from my home computers, my laptop, or my phone. While a lot of that is just entertainment, it’s also a great practical way for me to keep in touch with a couple hundred people that I might not otherwise even be able to find without such a powerful tool.

It’s led to my getting back in touch with people from my military time that I thought I’d never see again.

And now, using what I have at my fingertips, I can be a part of their lives, albeit in a small, digital way.

But it also means I can find my friend Jake, whom I hadn’t seen in over a decade, and have dinner at his house when my wife and I happened to be in his neck of the woods anyway a couple of months ago.

It also means that I was able to keep on top of what was going on with my uncle, who was ill and eventually passed away several months ago, because his wife and daughter and son kept me and other loved ones apprised.

It isn’t all just goofy Internet memes and games. There’s actual practical benefit to be taken advantage of there.

I use LinkedIn as a kind of Facebook for professionals — which is largely its purpose. In my line of work, networking with other people in my profession is the only way I’ve ever really found a job that was worth keeping, and LinkedIn is the primary way I do that.

I use Dropbox to centralize several gigs of my most important stuff. It’s free, it’s fast, it’s 100% cross platform (I use it on Windows machines and my Linux machines, and my wife uses hers on OS X), and with it, I can get to anything I need from my Dropbox folder, anywhere I am, as long as I have an Internet connection. Even if I do not, if I’m using a computer on which Dropbox is installed, that data is synced from the time I was last connected, so I at least have a recent version of it.

So if I’m at a friend’s house and he wants a copy of my resume to forward to someone that might want to hire me, I say “hang on a sec, let me use your computer to log into my Dropbox account; I have my most recent resume there”. Or if I want to give him a document from a project we’re working on together, or whatever. Dropbox is a great way to keep all of my most important, dynamic data centralized so I can get to it no matter where I am. No more “oh crap, the most recent version of this is on my other computer” or “damn it, my hard drive just failed, and I didn’t have this stuff backed up”.

I also have my own web hosting (for which I pay), where I have a lot more space which I can use to share things with others, host files for myself to get to elsewhere (that might not necessarily fit in my Dropbox folder), and I have created some FTP subaccounts for some close friends to use to help them centralize things as well.

I have my own domain, which I have pointed at that web hosting, but for email I have my domain mail hosted at Google, which is free. Like my web hosting, I use this to create subaccounts for friends so they can have email at my domain.

Along with the email accounts, this comes with all the other tools Google has to offer, such as Google Docs (which we use sometimes for collaborating), and Google Calendar, which I use to organize my personal life as well as to schedule game sessions for my group of tabletop (pencil-and-paper) gamers.

I access all of these things from my phone as well, so if I need to figure out if I’m free on a certain date, I’m a couple of clicks away from seeing my Google calendar, even if I’m out on the street somewhere.

Lately when it comes to docs, I’ve also been playing around with Zoho, which is so easy to use and so feature rich, it’d be conceivable to be a replacement for local office productivity apps on a machine that has an “always on” Internet connection. I like it better than Google Docs, myself.

I listen to Last.fm for variety in my music. From there I can stream just about anything for which I have a mood, and I don’t need to eat up the precious hard drive space on my older laptop (if I’m using that one), since I don’t need to store any music locally on it.

And speaking of local music, I have my own Sockso music server set up on my home network, so I can stream my own extensive MP3 collection over my home network, or, if I log into it remotely, anywhere I have an internet connection.

That same computer hosting my Sockso server also has a Windows server running in VirtualBox hosted on it. I have port forwarding for port 3389 going directly to that virtualized Windows guest so I can use Remote Desktop and connect to a fully functional Windows environment any time I need to, anywhere I happen to be. While I don’t have much need for Windows very often these days, it’s invaluable for testing things that aren’t working, or to test and see HOW something works, particularly if I’m troubleshooting something for a client or a friend, remotely. With a couple of clicks and a couple of keystrokes, I’m instantly connected to my own private Windows environment.

Likewise, I can ssh to the host machine and do anything on it via command line that I need to do, or use that ssh session to contain and encrypt my VNC session if I need to work graphically.

See, the Cloud can apply to one’s own private network, private cloud as well.

Additionally, since I mentioned tabletop roleplaying games earlier, I keep all of my campaign logs for my games online (like this one, just as one example), so that my players and I can get to them no matter whose house from which we’re gaming, and I don’t need to worry about sending out a cumbersome document to everyone, or losing anything if I have a local computer failure.

Sure, we are now using a lot of technology to centralize information for it, but the game is still played in person, around a table, with dice, and paper. Mixing old with new.

Via my bank, which allows me to do just about anything via online banking, I never have to actually physically go to a branch, not unless I’m needing to cash an actual check that somebody wrote me for some reason. I can access my bank account from anywhere I have Internet, and make transfers from account to account, check my balances, see when my credit card is due, look at how much I have open on my home equity line of credit, pay bills, you name it.

Heck, even this blog, The Linux Critic, I use regularly as kind of my Cloud-based procedure notebook… I regularly access older posts as reference, in a “how do I?” sort of way. That was one of the purposes of this blog when I started it, as a private Linux reference (that might help others too), and it’s easier than keeping such things locally.

My point to all this? I use the Cloud in my every day life, and I use it a lot. It protects me from data loss (because a lot of this stuff is stored elsewhere, in some cases in multiple locations even), it makes the things important to me more accessible, and it allows me to quickly and easily share information with friends, coworkers, colleagues, and collaborate on projects, or just have fun.

The cost, and where things are going

So what is the cost? Well, everything comes at a price. How steep that price is remains largely your own choice. Yes, there is a monetary price — I pay for my smartphone data services, and I pay for my web hosting, and I pay for my broadband internet — but there is also another couple of costs associated.

One of those costs I already mentioned, that of being “too connected” in our daily lives. I’ve learned how to moderate that, to use it as a tool, but to disconnect when necessary. I use it, not the other way around. I feel that this is the most important lesson that a lot of people in our modern society need to learn yet. You have to learn that, or it’ll drive you nuts, believe me.

That’s one price to pay.

The big cost

The other one is privacy. Well, privacy and security combined. You can’t turn on the news these days without hearing about someone being stalked via their publicly shared activities via social networking sites, or losing a job because of something they said on their Facebook or Twitter page.

Endless controversy surrounds what Google does with the data it hosts for, and collects about users. Not to mention the rather shady things Facebook is disclosing to third parties without users’ consent (or in many cases even users’ knowledge).

The simple fact of the matter is, unless your Cloud is a 100% private one (mine is partially private, since some of it is on my home, private server that belongs to nobody but me), that means you’re trusting some of your data — or all of your data — to a third party.

This is taking a risk.

But that risk can be managed. Think about it. You are trusting your most important data to third parties all the time anyway. Your bank has enough sensitive information on you to make your life REALLY suck if they misplace or misuse it. Your employer does too. So does the IRS. And your doctor. Heck, even your utility companies have a lot of personally identifiable information that could be used for nefarious purposes, or at least cause some damage on accident if something got misplaced, miskeyed, or misused.

And that does happen. All the time. Which means that we have to be careful with our information, our data, and with whom we trust it, especially in a day when technology is now making it possible to access and utilize that information in ways never thought possible, even 15 years ago.

So, knowing this, why do I stick my neck out in the Cloud like I do?

Simple. Because I’m very cognizant of it, and very privacy conscious, and I’m willing to make reasonable exceptions in areas where I can still manage my own exposure, manage my own risk.

Example. Facebook. That’s a biggy. As I mentioned, people shoot themselves in the foot with Facebook all the time, every day. There are a lot of complaints out there about how Facebook provides (or doesn’t provide) adequate privacy controls to end users, and while this is true, most of the actual trouble people get into with Facebook is directly related to oversharing.

My Facebook account is pretty solidly locked down. If you are not one of my Facebook friends, you won’t see my photo albums, you won’t see my face, you won’t see where I work, or my phone number, or my date of birth, or any of my status updates, or notes, or things I “like”. You won’t even see with whom I am friends on Facebook. Basically put, unless you’re in the very exclusive “Trent’s Friends” selection of people, you won’t see anything but my name. That’s it.

And I’m picky about whom I invite to that party. If you say something stupid on Facebook that gets you in trouble at school, or fired from your job, it’s because you said it in a way that didn’t have any reasonable expectation of privacy. It means that you didn’t lock down your account with the tools you have available to you, or you added your boss to your friends list. Or both.

You have to use a little bit of common sense about what you share in social networking. Yes, there are issues with how Facebook shares your information with 3rd parties; that’s another discussion. And I have issues with that too.

But by and large, most of the mishaps involving social networking are pretty easily controlled via some common sense, and thinking before posting.

Likewise, you still want to make sure that wherever you’re keeping your “stuff” in the Cloud it’s someplace legitimate, with adequate security and with adequate password protection.

And don’t keep anything out there that would cause you massive embarrassment if it were made public. Consider the “Cloud” to be kind of like keeping some of your stuff in a storage unit out in town. You can keep it reasonably safe, locked, and secure.

But you have to be reasonable. If you’re suspected of breaking the law, nobody will stop law enforcement from opening it up and looking around if they have a warrant to do so. Least of all the person in charge of that storage facility.

So in short, be privacy conscious about the Cloud and what you put there, and where. Use strong passwords, and change them regularly.

The future

Like it or not, and like buzzwords or not, Cloud Computing isn’t going anywhere any time soon. Like I’ve been saying, I found myself having a lot of stuff in the Cloud before I had even heard the term, much less had the chance to grow sick of hearing it. And you probably do.

As the Internet grows, and technology enables a lot of new ways of interacting with and sharing and accessing information, the Cloud will become more and more a part of our everyday lives, and it will eventually kind of fade into the background.

I’d be willing to bet that back when the power grid was first coming together, electricity in homes had its associated buzzwords too, and I’d bet that a lot of people were annoyed by it and got tired of hearing about it. But eventually it wasn’t something people really thought about. You just flipped a switch and the light came on. No big deal.

There are some bumps in the road ahead, undoubtedly. People need to learn how this works, learn how to incorporate it into their lives without letting it rule them, and without paying too high a price in monetary terms and in terms of privacy and security as well.

But it’ll happen. Just around the corner will be the day — and I don’t think it’s very far off — when you just flip the switch, and you’ll be living in the Cloud without even thinking about it.

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5 thoughts on “How do you cloud?

  1. Good summary of the cloud. The cloud also makes people nervous if they are not familiar with it. My previous employer was concerned about moving our enterprise software to “the cloud” – mainly because he wasn’t familiar with the concept. When I pointed out that it wasn’t any different than our hosting it on our local servers – it was really a matter of location – he felt better about it.

    This is similar in feel to the paper I wrote about the topic—mine has a business related slant. It can be found here: http://bit.ly/cDLVmW

    • Well, if my Web Marketing Director wife happens to think I’m right, I can’t be too far off, right? ;)

      When I pointed out that it wasn’t any different than our hosting it on our local servers – it was really a matter of location – he felt better about it.


      Which is exactly what I’m talking about. I think some people — particularly in the past year or two — can’t see the forest for the trees. The buzzword itself is getting in the way of understanding in a way that is preventing some from benefiting from its obvious pluses.

      When people hear a buzzword like “cloud” or “Web 2.0″, it creates a knee-jerk reaction that short circuits reason. This is part of why I wrote this piece up… I think if more people look past the buzzword and realize that “the Cloud” is more than just some term people are throwing around to make themselves look “hip” and “tech-savvy”, they’ll realize that they’re already there.

  2. Pingback: What I’m doing lately in technology « The Linux Critic

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