From Alex Edelman:
A lot of people have started talking about "the cloud" recently. I joined the conversation in Welcome to The Cloud.
I can see why a lot of people are excited. More and more of the applications we use every day to create and communicate are available online, accessible from anywhere. And small businesses (larger ones, too) can now quit worrying about IT altogether by putting their data in the cloud.
But I'm not a small business owner and, as for web apps, I'll admit to eagerly trying every new Google experiment, but realistically, I've been using webmail since sixth grade. Why get excited now?
The computer owner's machine still does most of the computing.
Here's an annotated version of this screenshot.
When I think about cloud computing, I emphasize the computing. The cloud hasn't arrived for me yet because my own computer still does the vast majority of my computing. And I suspect that when I buy my next computer, I'll be thinking about its processor, disk, and graphics card as much as when I bought my last one.
I'm writing this in a text editor running on my machine, listening to music from iTunes running on my machine, looking at a PDF open on my machine, logged in to chat services through client programs that run on my machine. Today at work, I used the copy of MATLAB on my machine to crunch through microscope images from a USB drive – no cloud there – and turned them into a PowerPoint presentation on my machine.
The clouds I use are convenient but not essential. I love Gmail, but Carnegie Mellon - where I'm a student – does email, too. I could easily download my RSS feeds and read them locally. I could host webpages and share files by setting up an old computer in a closet somewhere. And so on.
But I don't like the world this way. I think the present arrangement gives us a problem of inefficient computation.
The computer I'm using now is eight times as fast as the one I was using eight years ago. That power is useful: I hear my fans whirring as my computer fills up the extra RAM I installed a few weeks ago and smashes through some monstrous calculations (such as to create a parametric hand turkey). The only problem is that this happens a few times a week, maybe. Right now, my system monitoring widget tells me that my processor is 89% idle, and it stays that way for most of my daily tasks. At night, I close my laptop, and its power is completely unused for (ideally) eight hours.
Meanwhile, biologists need to simulate complex proteins folding, cryptographers need to run data through mind-boggling ciphers, and physicists need to crunch through the equations of lattice quantum chromodynamics. Oh, and somebody's trying to check email and cursing the busy server.
And here's another problem. If I ranked parts of my world in order of importance, my computer would probably be somewhere on par with oxygen. In the past year (at least), I have used it every single day. So naturally, I want to take it with me. So naturally, I want it to be thin and light and portable. I'm a college student, so naturally I want it to be cheap. So far so good. Except I also want a computer that's really good at, well, computing. I suspect that many others share my preferences. That inevitably leads to difficulty in finding the right balance between a wimpy netbook and a gargantuan desktop replacement laptop.
I've whined enough, so let me tell you my scenario of a good, near future.
The computing device I carry around consists of a persistent wireless Internet connection and a screen. I chose this device based entirely on screen size. My entrepreneurial friends, used to their Crackberries of years past, opt for little three-inch devices, while those who majored in design prefer 30-inch tablets. (They're not as big as they sound, since their organic LED screens allow them to roll up like posters.) It really doesn't matter, though, since we can do anything we want to – anything that's possible on a cluster of untold thousands of processors operating on the scale of exaFLOPS. Whenever I flip out my device to check email, the cloud – for this really is a cloud – allocates a few processor cycles to my trivial task, sends me the information, then goes back to curing cancer.
That's the cloud I want.
We're compiling links to Handshake 2.0's cloud computing series here.