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By Dr. Philip Baczewski, Director of  Academic Computing and User Services

Lost in the Clouds

The Gartner Group is fond of publishing what they call "hype cycles" applying to various information technologies. A hype cycle maps a technology to a timeline which measures the popular visibility its development and recognition, its unrealistic expectations, its fall from interest, and either a slide into obscurity or a gradual rise to general and useful adoption. Gopher slid into obscurity. The World Wide Web and hypertext achieved general adoption.

You can usually sense a technology's place on the cycle by how it is discussed in the IT trade press. The IT trade press is the herald of unrealistic expectations. It's not so much what is said, but how incessantly they say it. What's currently being hyped is cloud computing. As of July 2008, cloud computing is still on the rise in Gartner's web technologies hype cycle, but I'd guess that it may be soon rocketing to the crest of the unrealistic expectations curve.

Heads in the clouds?

Cloud computing has nothing to do with weather forecasting. The idea of cloud computing is that instead of your primary IT processing happening on your desktop computer or your local server, it is happening on some company's server and being accessed by you over the Internet. The cloud idea comes from the fact that when IT professionals draw pictures of how things work over the Internet, the Internet itself is often represented by a picture of a cloud and, as Arthur C. Clark would have said, indistinguishable from magic.

So, what's in a cloud? Applications, storage, OS instances, data backups, and whatever else you might encounter in IT terra firma. Google apps lets you create a document, spreadsheet, or presentation, all from the comfort of your browser. Besides the obvious fact that you no longer need that big company's expensive office application suite, the other powerful and popular idea of using cloud computing is that it is available not only from your computer, but from anywhere in the world where you can find a browser and access the cloud.

Some people are already using the cloud without knowing it when they read their Gmail or access their Google calendar. But Google, while being a primary denizen of the cloud, is not the only player. There are other clouds in the Internet sky and the services they offer can vary dramatically. Cloud computing can be a business model when a company can offer something as a service at a price which is competitive with or less expensive than doing the same thing locally.

There are a bunch of companies that now offer online data backup services to businesses and individuals. Managing data backups internally is becoming increasingly complex and expensive because the amount of data being generated is constantly increasing. But if backup is your business, you specialize on creating an expanding, possibly distributed, storage system that is less expensive than an in-house solution. Customers just connect to your site and, poof, their data is replicated in the cloud and is presumably safe and secure if it's ever needed. Certainly the cloud is the ultimate off-site data repository.

How safe is your data?

Of course, as some have pointed out, the cloud is not without its perils. How do you know that your data is safe and secure? How do you know it will remain accessible? All we can do now is place our trust in the almighty Google. A comparable question to "how safe is your data" is "how safe is your money?" It's 10:00 p.m. -- do you know where your money is? It's "in" a bank probably, but your money is more of a concept than a reality until you go to the ATM and put some of it in your pocket. Of course, that's not really money either. It is currency backed by the "full faith and credit" of the U.S. Government. Perhaps you can feel a bit better that your money is guarantied or at least regulated by the Feds. Your data is not.

In spite of the hype, there are many questions still surrounding cloud computing. it may seem so easy to turn responsibility for programs and data storage over to the faceless cloud and only need to glide through the world with browser in hand, but whose full faith and credit will safeguard your data and guaranty your applications? Are our heads in the clouds or in the sand?


Originally published, August 2008 -- Please note that information published in Benchmarks Online is likely to degrade over time, especially links to various Websites. To make sure you have the most current information on a specific topic, it may be best to search the UNT Website - . You can also search Benchmarks Online - as well as consult the UNT Helpdesk - Questions and comments should be directed to


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