One Year or Less: Cloud Computing
The emergence of large “data farms” — specialized data centers that host thousands of servers — has created a surplus of computing resources that has come to be called the cloud. Aspects of computing that used to be considered expensive, like disk storage and computing cycles, are now becoming cheap and ubiquitous. Layered on top of the cloud infrastructure are development platforms that are enabling thin-client, web-based applications for everything from image editing to word processing to music and video manipulation. Specialized applications like Flickr live entirely in the cloud and are unidentifiable as individual machines; there is no single computer, or even specific group of computers, that can be pointed to as housing Flickr, Google, or YouTube. Advances in computer science to ensure redundancy and protection from natural disasters have led to data being shared across many different hosting facilities. As the infrastructure has improved, these cloud-based applications are introducing a new way to think about software and files — and the ways we work with them.
The cloud is the term for networked computers that distribute processing power, applications, and large systems among many machines. Cloud-based applications are, simply, programs that use the cloud as their platform, for data storage, or both. These applications run not on a local computer, or on a single server, but on a distributed cluster of computers. The cloud is not made up of a single set of computers, but refers to any group of machines that are used in this way; it is not tied to a particular location or owner, though many companies have proprietary clouds. “Amazon’s cloud” refers to the computers used by Amazon.com; “the Amazon EC2 cloud” denotes servers that can be leased from Amazon as part of the Elastic Compute (EC2) group; IBM, Microsoft, Cisco, and many other companies offer cloud-based applications hosted on their clouds.
There are three types of services associated with the cloud, two of which include cloud-based applications. The most straightforward set of services from an end-user perspective are cloud-based applications that serve a single function, such as email or productivity applications. Examples of these include Gmail (http://gmail.com), Quicken Online (http://quicken.intuit.com/online-banking-finances.jsp), Google Docs (http://docs.google.com), and Zoho Office (http://www.zoho.com), among others. The next tier is one step removed from this: instead of offering end-user applications, these services offer the infrastructure on which to build such applications, along with the computing power to deliver them. Examples include Google App Engine (http://code.google.com/appengine/), which allows developers to create and host tailored programs using Google’s infrastructure; Heroku (http://heroku.com), which does the same for applications developed in Ruby on Rails; and Joyent (http://joyent.com), which hosts and scales applications in a variety of languages. The final tier of cloud services are those that offer sheer computing resources without a development platform layer, like Amazon’s Elastic Compute Cloud (http://aws.amazon.com/ec2/) or GoGrid (http://www.gogrid.com).
To the end user, the cloud is invisible; the technology that supports the applications doesn’t matter — just the applications themselves, and the fact that they are always available. Data storage is cheap in these environments — pennies per gigabyte — so cheap that it is often provided in surprising quantities for free.
Cloud-based applications are not without their drawbacks. Unlike off-the-shelf software packages installed on a local computer, which will remain usable as long as the operating system supports them, there is no guarantee that a cloud-based application will be around in the future. If the company that offers the application should collapse, the software may well just go away, as will access to any files specific to that application. Files created and saved on a local computer will remain safe and usable as long as they are backed up and the software remains installed. Files stored exclusively in the cloud, on the other hand, could become inaccessible in the future if the supporting company closes or is acquired, or even changes its business model. As a result there are privacy and ownership issues surround content that is created and stored on cloud systems that have yet to be resolved. Nonetheless, the economics of cloud computing are increasingly compelling.
Relevance for Teaching, Learning, and Creative Expression
Despite the risks, the emergence of cloud-based applications is causing a shift in the way we think about software and files. Rather than locking data and applications inside a single computer, we are gradually moving our software and files into the cloud, making them accessible from any computer using tools that are free or very inexpensive. The type of cloud-based applications that are currently most relevant to teaching, learning, and creative expression are the ready-made applications, hosted on a dynamic, ever-expanding cloud, that enable end users to perform tasks that otherwise would require a separately installed (and licensed) software package. Email, word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, collaboration, media editing, and more can all be done inside a web browser using applications that run in the cloud.
In addition to productivity applications, services like Flickr (http://www.flickr.com), YouTube (http://www.youtube.com), and Blogger (http://www.blogger.com), as well as a host of other browser-based applications, comprise a set of increasingly powerful tools that live in the cloud. Content created with these tools is easily sharable — not only is it easy to distribute the finished work, but it is also easy to collaborate while creating it. For creative expression, digital storytelling, and other purposes, there are cloud-based applications that can handle photo and video manipulation (see www.splashup.com for photos and www.jumpcut.com for videos, to name just two examples); capture a sketch with audio narration (www.sketchcast.com); or create presentations and slideshows (www.slideshare.net; www.sliderocket.com). A key feature of cloud-based applications is that they can scale quickly and easily, dynamically accommodating more users and more data.
Cloud-based applications like those listed above can provide students and teachers with free or low-cost alternatives to expensive, proprietary productivity tools. Browser-based, thin-client applications are accessible with a variety of computer and even mobile platforms, making these tools available anywhere the Internet can be accessed. The shared infrastructure approaches embedded in the cloud computing concept offer considerable potential for large scale experiments and research that can make use of untapped processing power.
While direct applications for teaching and learning are just beginning to emerge, this set of technologies is clearly an enabling force in the mix, and could distribute applications across a wider set of devices that are browser-enabled and greatly reduce the overall cost of computing. In addition, the ease of group work and collaboration at a distance could be a benefit applicable to many learning situations. Already, cloud-based applications are being used in the K-12 sector to provide virtual computers to students and staff without requiring each person to own the latest laptop or desktop machine; a handful of basic machines, provided they can access the Internet and support a web browser, are all that is needed for access to virtually unlimited data storage and programs of all kinds.
A sampling of cloud-based applications used across disciplines includes the following:
- Sciences Science Clouds, a project that aims to provide cloud computing resources to members of the science community for limited amounts of time in support of specific projects, launched its first cloud in early 2008. Scientists may request time on the clouds in exchange for a short write-up of their project.
- Meteorology Applications that combine a desktop interface with the data storage and computing power available in the cloud make powerful tools, once only available at large computing centres, available to anyone. One such example, Earthbrowser (http://www.earthbrowser.com), creates an interactive map populated with weather, geological, and other data; the engine that drives it lives in the cloud.
- Media Studies Using cloud-based applications like YouTube, a media culture course at Pitzer College in California tracks emerging up-to-the-moment social trends through real-time news clips and user-created content posted there.
Examples of Cloud-Based Applications
The following links provide examples of cloud-based applications.
CloudTrip is a fledgling directory of cloud-based applications, sorted into categories.
Encoding.com offers on-demand online video encoding. For small projects, video is encoded and then sent to the destination of choice. Larger projects take advantage of a cluster of computers for job distribution.
Gmail Accounts at Macquarie University
Macquarie University has adopted the education edition of Google Apps and given each student a Gmail account.
Google 101 Course Teaches Cloud Computing Concepts
Developed by a Google employee, this course was piloted at the University of Washington and is now being offered at other universities. Students use an open-source version of the software at the heart of Google’s cluster to study ways to effectively use cloud computing.
Google Apps at Waikato University and University of Auckland
Waikato University and the University of Auckland are using Google Apps for email and productivity applications across campus.
Virtual Computers for K-12 Staff and Students
A partnership between SimTone Corporation and Frank Porter Graham Elementary School in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, will leverage cloud computing technologies to provide students and staff with virtual computers. An article by Christopher Dawson describing the project is available; see http://education.zdnet.com/?p=1883.
For Further Reading
The following articles and resources are recommended for those who wish to learn more about cloud-based applications.
The 100 Top Web Apps for 2008
http://www.webware.com/html/ww/100/2008/winners.html (Webware, 21 April 2008.)
Nearly two million votes were cast to select the top 100 web applications in 10 categories, including music, productivity, video, communications, tools, and more. The article includes a description of each application.
Cloud Computing Expo: Introducing the Cloud Pyramid
(Michael Sheehan, Cloud Computing Journal, 21 August 2008.) This article illustrates a pyramid model for thinking about the types of services cloud computing enables.
Computing Heads for the Clouds http://www.businessweek.com/technologycontent/nov2007/tc20071116_379585.htm/
(Aaron Ricadela, BusinessWeek, 16 November 2007.) This article defines cloud computing and describes ways it is in use by IBM, Yahoo!, and Google.
Defogging Cloud Computing: A Taxonomy
(Michael Crandell, Refresh the Net, 16 June 2008.) This blog post includes a description of the layers of cloud computing: applications, platforms, and infrastructure.
Down on the Server Farm
(The Economist, 22 May 2008.) This article describes the infrastructure of Internet computing and its implications for the future.
How Cloud Computing is Changing the World http://www.businessweek.com/technology/content/aug2008/tc2008082_445669.htm
(Rachael King, BusinessWeek, 4 August 2008.) This article describes a perceived shift in the way we think about computing as more companies begin to use cloud-based applications for communications and productivity tasks.
Official Launch of the Top 100 Australian Web 2.0 Applications List
(Ross Dawson, Trends in the Living Networks, 18 June 2008.) This blog post includes the annotated list of 100 top Australian web applications selected in 2008 for their innovation, rich web- based interfaces, and participatory nature.
The Tower and the Cloud: An EDUCAUSE eBook
(Richard N. Katz, ed., EDUCAUSE, 2008.) This book, freely available as a PDF document, includes chapters by leading educators and technologists on all aspects of cloud computing and education, including accountability, implementation, social networking, and scholarship.
Twenty-One Experts Define Cloud Computing
(Jeremy Geelan, Cloud Computing Journal, 27 August 2008.) Brief quotes from twenty-one recent descriptions of cloud computing are gathered in this article to help draw a picture of what exactly it is.
Web 2.0 and Cloud Computing
(Tim O’Reilly, O’Reilly Radar, 26 October 2008.) This blog post describes three types of cloud computing and considers the impact of each on business.
del.icio.us: Cloud-Based Applications
(Australia–New Zealand Horizon Advisory Board and Friends, 2008.) Follow this link to find resources tagged for this topic and this edition of the Horizon Report, including the ones listed here. To add to this list, simply tag resources with “hzau08” and “cloudcomputing” when you save them to del.icio.us.
Related Tags: cloud computing, distributed systems, grid computing, webware, web applications, webapps, online apps, online productivity apps
Posted by NMC on November 30, 2008