A-head in the cloud?

On today’s A5 there was a story about a company making it’s way into the cloud for their computer needs.

Before we begin, I want to make sure to clarify that Lando Calrissian is not involved in this. The cloud doesn’t involve Cloud City, rather it’s a metaphor for a different way for how data and applications are stored.

Right now, if you want to use Microsoft Word, you need to buy Microsoft Office, install it on your computer, save everything you create on your computer, as well as remembering to check for more updates to install. For most users this can be a hassle.

Now take that one computer and multiply it by a few hundred employees and you can see what kind of a hassle it can be. The cost in money, time and manpower can be a headache, even if something doesn’t go wrong.

Enter the cloud.

The system the story discussed involved Google’s many applications, including Google Docs and Gmail. The big benefits are the ability to collaborate on documents easier, and not having a mass of programs to maintain on your computers. Amazon is taking this a step further by offering people remote storage on their S3 servers. Think of it like a backup hard drive stored somewhere else that you can access anywhere.

Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? There’s just one small flaw:

They all rely on the Internet, which is bad for three reasons

1. Is it working? – Ideally when you’re trying to get work done, it’s best to rely on as few people as possible. In this case, rather than relying on people who are in house or in your company’s phone directory, you’re relying on a whole lot more to get to your data. First there’s your Internet Service Provider (or ISP) who will hopefully have a working connection. Then there’s the company who’s hosing your information. As long as everything is OK on their end everything is fine. But if one thing slips up on deadline, well, who ya gonna call?

2. Feeling swift today? – As is the case with most companies, the speed of an Internet connection probably isn’t lightning quick. It’s enough to take care of Googling something or checking your e-mail, but if a couple of people are downloading something at the same time, the Internet…grinds…to…a………halt.

Let’s add onto that a little bit. How often does your office use Microsoft Word? How much more traffic would that add to put your documents on the Web or to download them? If a network can handle that, then Google Docs would be a good alternative.

But what about backups? One of the little secrets ISPs have is a capped upstream. When Comcast tells you  that they offer speeds up to 6 megabits (not megabytes mind you. I’ll hit on that in a future post), they’re often referring to download speeds, or the speed something can be sent to your computer. When it comes to uploading, speeds are often drastically lower than downloading.

Let’s take a quick speed sample. I decided to find something near a gigabyte (or 1,000 megabytes) in size. I found this server software download from Apple and the download on my connection at the Appeal-Democrat will take roughly an hour. Now let’s take that and think in terms of an upload speed that’s half as fast as that download speed. Most upload speeds are even slower, but I’m a fan of easy math. Twice as long would take two hours to upload

Now take a look at your hard drive. Personally I have a 60 gigabyte music collection that I might want to back up online. If it takes a gigabyte an hour, that’s roughly 120 hours in a perfect scenario, or roughly five days. I typically don’t go a week without using my computer and most businesses don’t go dark for five days very often.

3. Do you have the bandwidth? – ISPs like Comcast are starting to tinker with the idea of bandwidth caps (another topic i’ll hit on in a future post). Basically it’s saying you can only upload and download so much data each month or they’ll cut you off. Right now Comcast is working with a 250 gigabyte cap, which is fairly reasonable for the average user. But now let’s factor in the idea of making a nightly backup where each night you send up a new backup of your hard drive to store somewhere in the cloud. A few gigabytes here, a few gigabytes there and suddenly you’re getting really close to that 250 gigabyte limit.

Now all of this isn’t to say that you shouldn’t use the cloud. People use it all the time with their e-mail whether it’s through Yahoo, Hotmail or Gmail. The key is to not always rely on it. If you’re going to use it for e-mail, make sure you either download or print the important ones. If you’re going to use something like Google Docs, make sure to have a copy handy on your desktop of your important documents. Google Docs also offers an offline mode which means you don’t always have to be connected to the Internet.

The cloud can be very handy. In fact, I’m even going to make a software recommendation that’s based on the cloud called Evernote. It’s free for the average user, give it a shot. It’s usable in a Web browser, on your desktop and even on your phone. It’s both Windows and Mac compatible and I wish I could use it in the office more. Alas, my computer’s operating system is a few versions behind what’s needed.

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