Cyberclinic: What's this 'cloud' I keep hearing about?

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The Independent Tech

Apple is making solemn promises to synchronise all our email, contacts and calendars in "the cloud". IBM is reported to be climbing aboard "the cloud". Amazon is trumpeting something called an Elastic Compute Cloud, while Dell have tried, and failed, to register the trademark "cloud computing". So what is the cloud? No need to brace yourselves for an onslaught of geek-speak: it's the internet.

So why all the fuss over a buzz word? After all, anyone using webmail services such as Yahoo! and GMail is already knee-deep in "the cloud", with emails and the program itself both stored remotely. It's because more and more online applications are launching – and the amount being splurged on data centres all over the world indicates a clear transfer of computing power from your own machine to a remote one.

But sometimes we like to have full control of our computing environment. We spend absurd amounts of time customising and tweaking our set-ups, but if you're "cloud computing", you might log on to be confronted with a software upgrade and a new-look program when, actually, you preferred the old way. And not only is it dictated how you work; it's dictated when you can work, too. We like to imagine broadband internet as an always-on resource – but try telling that to citizens of rural Herefordshire who are still on go-slow dial-up connections.

And regardless of speed, there could be problems at your end, at the other end, or at any number of points in between, that prevent you from accessing "the cloud", and all your stuff that's in it. Apple's MobileMe has had widely reported teething troubles, and GMail has been choking a little recently. Of course, there's no denying that "the cloud" is the future. But until it's guaranteed to work properly, don't believe the hype.

Diagnosis required

Email technology gripes to cyberclinic@independent.co.uk, or join the discussions on the blog at www.independent.co.uk/cyberclinic. Currently under discussion: Is it safe for me to admit to a website that I've forgotten my password?

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