In the clouds

In Ireland’s last general election campaign, the then opposition (and now government) party Fine Gael had, as an element in its manifesto, a commitment to promote Ireland as a ‘digital island’. In the course of the campaign this theme was developed to focus on support for ‘cloud computing’, an element that subsequently became part of the programme for government in the Fine Gael/Labour coalition. But while cloud computing is on everyone’s lips these days, what it really means is not always so clear. So for example Enda Kenny, the Leader of Fine Gael and now the Taoiseach (Prime Minister), clearly had no idea whatsoever what it was all about when interviewed on the topic.

I come across vacuous references to the concept all the time. At a meeting last week several speakers referred to information being available in ‘the cloud’, used in a way to suggest that all they meant was that information was available online. In that sense ‘the cloud’ is used interchangeably with ‘the internet’. In fact the ‘cloud’ is simply a reference to IT data and software not located in the hardware used to access them. So whereas until recently, and to an extent now, your software and documents were likely to be on your computer’s hard disk, now increasingly they may be located on remote servers or data centres, the location of which the user is unaware of and uninterested in.

Cloud computing represents a now fast developing trend in the ICT industry, and it is changing the capacity and nature of the equipment you are likely to have on your desk or in your home. But whether it is itself a type of industry, as some politicians’ comments suggest, is rather doubtful. When politicians promise to promote cloud computing, I doubt whether many of them understand what that could mean in practical terms.

Interestingly, higher education is perhaps a sector that has a particular fondness for what one might now call non-cloud computing. Offices, classrooms and computer laboratories tend to contain computers with big hard disks that contain all software and documents. While some of that is changing, universities are not at the cutting edge here. It will be interesting to watch how this scene develops.

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13 Comments on “In the clouds”

  1. Vince Says:

    if you hand an i-whatever over when they join you. You might be surprised how rapidly you find a cloud forming above your head.
    It defeats me though why the finance departments within the uni’s haven’t seen this as a God given funding stream.
    And for all the hype, this cloud stuff is little more than a variant of the mobile phone business model.

  2. anna notaro Says:

    In February this year THE announced that Universities would soon be able to save large sums on their IT provision after an investment of £12.5 million in “cloud computing” (based on remote servers delivering applications and services to any internet-enabled device) by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
    even before the announcement many universities, also north of the border, had opted for Google and Microsoft to host student email systems for free (Dundee university is also soon to join the long list. As always with new technology it is a matter to strike the right balance between new opportunities (big savings on IT budgets, the possibility for academics to *share* research content online etc.) and risks (hasty outsourcing of existing IT services thus disregarding that cloud computing still does not offer the bespoke computing services that researchers often require, and, crucially, that issues of data security and privacy are also problematic). Universities would be wrong, in my opinion, to ignore the latter considerations, a constructive suggestion came recently from Paul Watson, professor of computer science at Newcastle University, who argued that universities need to invest in cloud computing as a way to encourage research innovation, not simply as a cost-saving measure, possibly by creating local clouds, as well as using external ones, in order to reduce the risk posed by farming out important IT services.

    • Jilly Says:

      I would agree that the data protection issues of storing university information/records using cloud computing would need to be very carefully considered, considering that (in Ireland, anyway) the Data Protection Commissioner regards almost all data on students (including their marks) as falling into the ‘highly confidential’ category.

      • Wendymr Says:

        There’s also the issue of data safety, which is the main reason I wouldn’t trust my data to online storage. Here’s just one example of someone’s data being wiped out by an online storage site with no ability to have it recovered.

  3. John Carter Says:

    “In fact the ‘cloud’ is simply a reference to IT data and software not located in the hardware used to access them.”

    Not at all a new idea then.

  4. John Carter Says:

    Cloud computing seems very similar to the ‘thin client’, a term first coined in 1993.

  5. no-name Says:

    There does appear to be a bit of fog around the use of the term “cloud computing”. A reason that Ireland should dwell on its possibilities is in differences in data protection laws between Europe and the United States, particularly since the Patriot Act of 2001. If Ireland positions itself as a host to physical hardware that provide the foundations of data centres then it can be a supplier of cloud services to Europe. The urgency of hosting data centres might be evident from reflecting on the disruption caused by the recent enough eruption of the Icelandic volcano (the disruption that caused for travel and commerce should be projected on the potential for interruption to satellite and cable communications. So long as communications are intact Ireland can host data servers for European markets and those globally who relish European style data protection and if connections are severed, however briefly, Ireland can trust that it has access to its data). Ireland will contine to be an island and events like that eruption make clear that it is important to mitigate risks of potential isolation. Being a primary data host would signifcantly mitigate risks as well as serving the data needs of industries subscribing to cloud services. Of course, it remains unclear what scale of contribution hosting cloud services could provide to the Irish economy because the same risks of isolation that make it necessary for Ireland to host data centres demand that redundant data centres should exist elsewhere in Europe.

    Even with European style data protection laws the frequency with which physical paper or data sticks, by legislation under lock and key, turn up in bogs or on trams disinclines many, myself included, to desire to have data dispersed in the cloud.

  6. Ernie Ball Says:

    I typed my first substantial piece of academic work on a vt100 terminal connected to a Digital PDP/11 mainframe in 1982. All of the data and software was stored on the mainframe’s hard drive. In later years I used a programme called PINE to read e-mail with both software and data stored “in the (nearby) cloud.”

    It was considered a big advance when all these functions moved to the “client side” as you could have your documents and software with you wherever you were.

    I understand that the ubiquity of the Internet and the advent of multiple portable devices to connect to it make the old model newly attractive. But this is a field that develops more quickly than the thinking of the typical Irish politician. I’d be leery of investing large amounts of state money into something that may soon be yesterday’s news.

    I also take issue with your characterisation of universities as somehow behind the times in this regard. I could put all of my data on google docs if I wanted, except for one thing: I don’t trust them. It’s not about “the cutting edge”; it’s about what makes sense when everything is taken into account.

  7. John Carter Says:

    From a design point of view, one now needs to decide which data and programs to store and/or run on a server and which locally. Minimizing the unnecessary movement of data via the still relatively slow internet is one factor. Privacy/secrecy/security is another. Perhaps ownership and copyright is yet another. I’m also thinking about where I should store my photos/writing/programs for posterity (!) when I die. I want other people to have access to them. Storing them on a server under the control of an ISP is no good, since they need to be paid each year. Perhaps the ‘cloud’ is set to become the IT heaven.

  8. revd rob Says:

    Sounds like a clip from “Yes Prime Minister”

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