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Hey! You! Get Off Of That Cloud!

Ah, yes.  Welcome to Computer Science III.  Take a seat, things will begin in a minute.

RIIIIIIIIIIIING!

Okay, class.  Eyes up front.  Today's lesson is on cloud computing, the big buzzword in tech circles.  I've had a few people asking me what my beef is with Google's new Chrome OS, which is clearly intended to do cloud computing.  First, I'm going to explain what cloud computing is for those that might not know (a lot of my readers aren't on LiveJournal, but read this through syndicated feeds, so they ain't gonna complain about me rehashing what they know) and make sure we're on the same page about this wonderous new concept before I shit all over it.

So, what exactly is cloud computing?  Cloud computing is basically an attempt to transfer computer deployment away from financial considerations.  The idea is that the Internet is not like a series of tubes at all, but is actually a cloud.  It's amorphous, scales as needed, and holds vast amounts of intangible data.  You come up with something that can access that data and give it form, and you got yourself some cloud computing.  This means, basically, that all the information you have and need is not on your computer, but kept in the cloud itself, and you access it as you need it.

Computer history nuts and those who were there when the Digital Revolution began are probably feeling some deja vu about now.  Cloud computing is basically how the first computers worked.  There would be a mainframe housed somewhere with all the data and routines needed.  Users would log in with a "dumb" terminal (nowadays, it would be called a thin client).  The terminal held no information, it was pretty much just memory.  The mainframe and terminal would send information back and forth as needed, and everything was stored on the mainframe.  Without a connection to the mainframe, the dumb terminal was useless.  Replace a wired, dedicated mainframe with this "cloud" and you got cloud computing in a nutshell.

At this point, I think some of you are already figuring out why this whole thing bugs me.  Basically, this means that, to access your data or apps, you need Internet access.  If you can't get online, you're screwed.  Some browser-based apps do allow you to download to your computer, and save to your own media, but the big selling point of cloud computing is that not only do you not need fancy hardware and installations that can wipe out data files, but you can conceivably access it from any computer anywhere as long as you have Internet access.

Google has been at the forefront of the cloud computing movement.  Their creation of Google Office, which gives you an office suite that runs out of your browser, was the start.  Lots of others are joining the web-based trend, mainly because, since it runs in a browser, it is completely platform agnostic.  Adobe even has a version of Photoshop that runs in the browser.  Chrome OS is just taking this to the next level.  There will be a Linux kernel handling the speakers, display, etc.  It will simply be a host environment.  Any actual activity will be controled by the Chrome browser, and will simply feed update information to the Linux kernel running the computer.

Now, I can appreciate the convenience factor.  But part of the reason I have a laptop is to take my work with me.  There aren't many free wifi spots.  Some are reasonably priced (a lot of Mickey D's places charge $3 for two hours), some are oddly priced (one mall charges $5 for 24 hours access), and some are obscene (Starbucks).  Some free spots are truly free, while some others require you to register, handing over your private information just to surf the 'Net while you are there (and a tip of the hat to Hooters, which requires you to create a registered account to use their wifi.  Fuck you).  But this is immaterial with a full Linux distro and my apps on my hard drive.  I could be in the middle of Utah at the bottom of a copper mine and my computer will still function in the way I need it to, I don't need web access to make things happen.

But Peter, I hear some of you asking, this is for computers that would be too expensive with an OS on them.  Bullshit.  XP goes on computers for $7 a license.  Linux is free.  The cost of an operating system on hardware is negligible.  This creates a machine that could potentially hold your data and/or your livelihood hostage.  Remember the Google server crash?  First time I can think of that it happened, but it did, and if you needed Google apps, you were hosed for 24 hours.

There's also the question of the license to use cloud apps.  Businesses considering cloud apps are told to review the privacy policies very very carefully.  Do you trust those maintaining the cloud not to mine your data?  In this age when programs read your e-mail and link ads into the display based on keywords they find?  Or even not to hold it hostage?  (I'm reminded of Office 97, where, if you tried to save in Office 95 .doc format, it gave the file a .doc extention but actually saved it as an .rtf files, stripping all formatting irretreivably away.  Took them six months to "fix" the problem, by which point, most people simply paid to upgrade.)  Even Richard Stallman himself says this is a bad idea.  It puts control of your documents, apps, even computer itself into the hands of a company that is not connected to you.  Business people that need their data don't need a cloud, a decent server with good security and a geek who actually knows his shit will do the same thing without involving a third party.

In many ways, cloud computing is actually a step backwards in computer evolution, returning to the days of the mainframe instead of self-contained units that do what you want them to.  Do yourself a favor, and access the cloud from a fully installed OS of some kind, even Windoze if you have to, and keep your infomation in your hands.  Or even better, just use app-get and forget the cloud completely.

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