Look up, it's the future: Learning to love 'the cloud'

No more downloads, no more upgrades – more and more of us are allowing the internet to control our computers. But geeks and technophobes alike are anxious about where the data lives. Rhodri Marsden thinks we should stop worrying and learn to love 'the cloud'
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The Independent Tech

It is a good general rule that if someone tries to persuade you about the worth of something, but has trouble explaining exactly what that thing is, you should probably adopt a suspicious expression and give it a wide berth.

While the merits of, say, a dishwasher are immediately apparent to us all, it takes us more time to buy into abstract concepts – and the leading contender for abstract concept of 2011 is "the cloud". If you haven't seen literature attempting to persuade you of the merits of "the cloud" yet, it's only a matter of time; the big technology companies are almost obsessively driving its development and promotion to both businesses and individuals, while we collectively lean back, head to one side, saying: "Well, all right then, but what's so good about it? And why should I spend any more time listening to you struggle to come up with a definition of what it is?"

You certainly shouldn't feel ashamed about appearing ignorant on this topic, because you're far from alone. A survey by the PC Support Group last month showed that only 42 per cent of company directors and senior managers across Britain can claim a grasp of what cloud computing is – and we're talking here about a "hot" IT trend that's supposed to add some £25bn to the value of the British economy by 2015. So, the two withering questions for us to ask are, firstly: what is it? And secondly: why should we care?

It's essentially an IT model based on the internet. And it's IT professionals who are getting particularly worked up about the cloud, because it represents a radical overhaul of the traditional infrastructure and its relationship to us, the consumers. (The fact that the cloud prompts so much confusion and misinformation is undoubtedly related to IT companies' natural flair for expressing themselves in confusing language.) But what it means for us is pretty simple: many of the things we currently do with our computers using software and hardware we install ourselves at home will now happen, as if by magic, via an internet browser. We don't need to buy additional hard drives, because we can save files in "the cloud" (for which, read: "a data centre somewhere on the other side of the world whose location supposedly shouldn't matter to us"). We don't need to buy a copy of Microsoft Office, because there are services available "in the cloud" (for which, read: "via your internet connection") that let us work on spreadsheets or presentations via our browser, be it Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari or Chrome.

What it means for the IT industry is more complex, and involves such mind-boggling phrases as "pervasive virtualisation" and "elastic response to load changes". We don't need to worry about any of that, but suffice to say that the rise of cloud computing will put huge amounts of power in the hands of a very small group of companies such as Google, Microsoft and Amazon, which will become the "megahosters" of the future. And, unsurprisingly, they're terribly keen that we become terribly keen on the concept.

The idea of computer power flowing into the home in the same way as gas or electricity was envisaged back in the 1960s, when John McCarthy, the computer scientist who coined the term "artificial intelligence", predicted that "computation may some day be organised as a public utility". This prediction may have started to seem fanciful – even ridiculous – as the number of computers in the average Western household started to mount, but cloud computing sees the unlikely transfer of that computing power outside the home.

Fast internet speeds and the sophistication of modern internet browsers mean that computers can be lighter, sleeker, less powerful with less storage space and, crucially, cheaper. (The MacBook Air, Apple's latest laptop, ticks all these boxes except the last, and it's clear that it was built with cloud computing in mind.) So, the implications for low-cost cloud computing in the developing world are huge; the American technology writer Nicholas Carr predicted back in 2008 that cheap, utility-supplied computing would "change society".

In the West, however, it presents us with an odd dilemma, because when we're asked to migrate our computing tasks to the cloud, we feel as if we're being asked to downgrade. The question, "if you only need milk, why would you buy a cow?", is often used in relation to cloud computing – and it's a question that's certainly worth asking to anyone who doesn't own "a cow". We already have cows. Loads of them. So why would we give up on cows? Are we being presented with a solution to a problem that doesn't actually exist?

Yes, and no, is the perhaps predictable answer. There are several boons to cloud computing that might prompt a collective sigh of relief from many – and particularly those for whom PCs and Macs are a necessary and stressful evil. For starters, it allows you to surrender control of many of the more tedious aspects of using a computer. Forget about software-installation discs, serial numbers and reboots; in a perfect cloud-computing environment, all your software is virtualised, appearing instantly in the browser window. Ditto with maintenance; upgrades and updates to the software you use happen remotely, so you'll automatically be using the latest version. You don't even have to think about backups; your files are – at least in theory – guaranteed to stay intact, with the cloud service taking care of their safety. And because you can access your services and files from any computer with a browser, there's no need to transport files around and accidentally lose memory sticks down the back of sofas; existing services like Dropbox make moving stuff between remote computers so easy that the act of burning a CD or DVD becomes a distant memory. All this combines to create a simpler, safer computing environment that's handed to us on a pristine plate. If your dad has no problem using an iPhone but struggles with computers, cloud computing will be up his street.

What we save on hardware and software we might spend instead on renting services or storage space for as long as we need it. The music subscription service Spotify is a good consumer example; you don't need 60GB or more in hard-drive space to store music, because Spotify lets you access its own colossal library in return for an annual fee (or the inconvenience of listening to a few adverts). The cloud is perfect for business startups that have no idea how quickly they might expand; instead of investing in huge quantities of expensive kit in anticipation, they can simply equip employees with a cheap laptop and let cloud computing take the strain. Studies have shown that businesses save on average about 18 per cent of their IT budgets by shifting to a cloud-based setup.

But cloud computing won't suit everyone, no matter how utopian the blurb. While always-on internet – whether fixed line, WiFi or 3G – is a reality for many, the idea of a fast, reliable connection starts becoming a weak joke when you get a certain distance from an urban centre. Speed is one issue; anyone who has spent minutes staring at the screen while a video file uploads to YouTube will be familiar with the difficulties of moving very large files across the internet.

But if there's no connection at all, files are going nowhere, regardless of their size. All services become inaccessible. We'll be sat in front of a computer that can achieve nothing more than inform us that it can achieve nothing, and our total dependence on this single way of doing things will be made laughably apparent. Equally, what if your internet connection is working, but the service isn't? Or, worse, the service is simply no longer operating? Businesses offering "cloud solutions" may come and go, but at least your wheezing old PC running old accounting software will keep running until the machine physically breaks down and dies. The cloud, sadly, is not so forgiving.

Even if the cloud is working perfectly, it can provide other irritants. Software updates and new ways of working can be forced upon users who were perfectly happy with the way things were last week. Witness, for example, the furore that occurs every time Facebook makes minor tweaks to its layout: millions sign petitions to vent their fury. Cloud services will be setting themselves up for that kind of irate customer feedback every time they make a genuine attempt to improve their service.

But the most niggling, persistent problem with the cloud is the question of where our data is stored, who has access to it and who is looking after it. No matter how often we're reassured that the companies taking care of our stuff won't take a peek, copy, distribute or delete it, the fact is that they have possession of it and would certainly be able to, if they felt like it. In truth it's almost certain that your data will be more secure if it's sitting somewhere halfway down aisle 73 of a colossal data centre in Michigan than on a wireless hard drive in a cupboard in your bedroom, but this is hard for us to get our heads around because we're not in physical control. It's not dissimilar to the act of keeping one's life savings stuffed underneath a mattress, unwilling to believe that a company would take greater care of it than we would.

But some fears are well-founded. Amazon, one of the biggest cloud players, recently abandoned their hosting of WikiLeaks data, and this immediately highlighted the problem of surrendering data to a service that may have its own capricious whims. What might they do with the data we give them? Can we have their assurance that they delete it all when we ask them to? If they're looking after so much data, how can we be sure that they're devoting enough care to our comparatively minuscule portion of it? Few of us preside over information of such significance that it could cause political scandal, but services do make mistakes. When we forget to back up, or accidentally send a sensitive email to the wrong person, we curse our stupidity and resolve not to screw up again. But when a service mishandles our data, our anger and indignation is colossal. And quite rightly so.

The question of whether we actually need cloud computing or not is moot, because it's coming regardless. It is said that if something is "inevitable" in technology then it's probably driven by businesses in pursuit of profit, and that's certainly the case here; economies of scale mean that the internet giants stand to gain greatly by persuading us of the merits of working in the cloud, and the accepted wisdom is that by 2020 the majority of us will be performing most of our computing tasks this way. Some of those tasks already come naturally; webmail has been around for over a decade and seems like a perfectly good way of using email, with both the application and all our messages sitting in the ether. Actually, we're getting increasingly used to virtualisation. Our social media lives across Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr, among others, are conducted entirely in this same way, so image editing and word processing shouldn't feel like too much of a wrench.

Having said that, we've not shown great enthusiasm over using a service like Google Docs, when Open Office or Microsoft Office is already installed on our machines, working perfectly well and brimming with additional features. Video and music applications in particular don't lend themselves very well to the cloud – and remember that Google's cloud-based operating system, Chrome OS, which was announced at the end of last year and will see a proper launch this summer, can't even print yet. Or rather, it can, but only a test page to prove that it "works". It'll be a strange new environment to work in; re-educating ourselves to switch between tabs or windows in a browser rather than switch between applications in Windows or MacOS will take some getting used to.

It's an odd situation, however, when the IT world seems to be more apprehensive of a move to the cloud than the rest of us. Companies whose IT employees are fearful of their jobs in a new cloud-based reality shouldn't worry unduly; most users, corporate and otherwise, will continue to combine cloud and non-cloud services and will always require tech experts to make everything hang together.

Perhaps it's the case that geeks are slightly contemptuous of the cloud because it doesn't give them the freedom to do what they want with their machines. But it will undoubtedly give a huge proportion of the world's population the freedom to use their first computers. So ignore the hype, and wait for the cloud to engulf you. But if anyone asks you to define it, maybe just mumble something about the internet and walk away.