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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