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Cloud Computing – is it a Good Thing? February 14, 2008

Posted by Andre Vellino in General, Uncategorized.

One suspects a computing trend may be passé by the time it hits the mainstream media. Cloud Computing was recently the centerpiece of a CBC Radio broadcast and TV Ontario program and both featured Nicholas Carr, author of The Big Switch.

I am of two minds about the cloud. I like Carr’s analogy with the power grid. The primary advantage of AC current over DC is its ability to transport electrical energy over large distances and to permit centralized generation. People used to generate their own (DC) power, but economies of scale make it more efficient to have it as a centralized utility. Ditto, with CPU and storage. All you need is bandwidth (although, as Daniel points out, the real problem is latency.)

My question is: do you (we) really want to rent centralized commodity computing? Every now and then I advocate (tongue partly in cheek) a return to the IBM mainframe Time Sharing Option (TSO.) After all, who wants to have to upgrade processors and software, or maintain equipment, perform backups, run virus and spam checks? I don’t really enjoy being the sys-admin for the 4 computers (with 4 different operating systems) and the network in my own home: I’d rather be hacking or blogging (or skating, for that matter.)

On the other hand, I also like to excercise unfettered control over my computing environment. I like to know what my processor is doing, I like the ability to unplug from the network, I like to chose which upgrades I do and don’t install. Sometimes I even want obsolete versions of applications (e.g. Yahoo messenger, when it didn’t have add-push and self-updating.) And I’d rather not be dependent on the matrix if I don’t have to be.

I also worry about renting CPU cycles because someone else has control over them. Californians who leased GM’s electric vehicle EV1 were chagrined to discover that the terms of their lease enabled GM to take them off the road (nicely documented in Who Killed the Electric Car.)

As environmentalists now urge us to generate our own power, get off the grid and become self-sufficient, so computing environmentalists will urge users to keep ownership of their hardware and software. Hardware and software don’t have to be obsolete as quickly as they typically become and the longer we keep our computing devices functional, the better (see this recent National Geographic article on high-tech trash being dumped in the third world.)

I think George Gilder was premature to declare the death of the desktop. When people at large discover that WiFi EMF is bad for your health, I’m willing to bet that will trigger a swing of the pendulum away from always-networked, application-free thin-clients and there will be a movement to reclaim ownership of the personal computer in the name of autonomy and freedom.


1. Daniel Lemire - February 15, 2008

Given that where I live, I am exposed to about 3 or 4 home WiFi networks, and possibly even more at work, I doubt that disconnecting my network will save my health.

I also think that Cloud Computing is a false prediction. Indeed, it is already there. I use Google Mail. What is Google Mail if not outsourcing my email needs to a cloud of computers? What about shopping? I rely on Amazon, again a cloud of computers.

I am one of the very few bloggers out there who host their own blog engine. I am a dinosaur.

2. Andre Vellino - February 15, 2008

Yes, I agree with you that cloud computing is already here and it probably has it’s place in the computing ecosystem – anything that requires the network e-mail, IM, blogs, social networking etc. might as well be in the network as well, I suppose.

You’re also probably right that the marginal extra EMF from home WiFis is swamped by cell-phone towers and cordless phones.

What I’m not so sure about is web desktops (e.g. EyeOS http://demo.eyeos.org/.) I’m not so sure about Google Documents either. (Remember when Corel ported Word Perfect to be a web-application in circa 1998?)

Google Calendar, on the other hand, is great, because I share one with my spouse. That’s the key – is the data “personal” or “shared”?

3. Gareth - February 18, 2008

Have a look at Amazon EC2 and S3. I’ve done some rudimentary tinkering with them. Overall I’m very impressed: at $0.10 per node hour usage, its a heck of a lot more convenient than running your own cluster, unless you’re in an context that allows you to treat infrastructure, HVAC and power as externalities or your utilization is close to 100%.

With EC2 you have complete control over the instances you create but they are ephemeral which means that you can add and remove them as required. Primary usage right now appears to be small companies using it to run their web infrastructure on the cheap. I imagine that significantly reduces the cost of a startup, and I expect that it’ll be added to the Going Bedouin startup checklist. (http://www.coghead.com/blog/going-bedouin)

As with any new technology, it takes a while for the ramifications to shake out. It’s not the same as having your own infrastructure on site, but it’s a mistake to judge it in terms of prior technology. For some uses (cash strapped startups), it’s going to be preferable. As the tools, standards and general techniques evolve, I expect this sort of resource to become much more commonly used.

Personally, I’d like to see cloud computing used more by academics, but the whole grant structure (in Canada at least) makes it really hard to justify money for services, and generally easier to get money for hardware. The HPCVL is a step in the direction of cloud computing, but not as soft/flexible as EC2: it’s pretty much a Sun demo shop. http://www.hpcvl.org/

4. Daniel Lemire - February 18, 2008

I guess I am biased because all my data is already on the network. Since around 2002 or 2003, all my data has been hosted on CVS and subversion servers I access remotely from various machines.

5. Andre Vellino - February 19, 2008

I use CVS a lot too and in a way it supports my point: make local copies (so as not to depend on the network) and commit when you can (either for team work or for backup.)

Richard Ackerman just pointed me to a post that indicates why the “free software” community should be concerned, not, perhaps, about the idea of cloud computing, but about it’s monopolization by mega corporations.


Mattew Ingram (Globe and Mail reporter) points us to a not unlikely horror story (about depending on Google services) about a phishing attack:


As to the environmental problems with centralized computing farms, the following from Harper’s magazine makes for interesting reading:


6. Andre Vellino - February 19, 2008

Thanks for the pointers Gareth.

I can see enterprises using EC2. Hosted computing services + IT outsourcing. Yes, I can see that.

What worries me (somewhat) is the trend that takes the “personal” out of personal computing for the masses. I already have misgivings about the increasing lack of control that users have over their applications, how and when they are updated, what information goes back to the vendor (e.g. RealPlayer, gaming applications that monitor your PCs processes etc.) Moving apps and their control to the network exacerbates this (worrying) trend.

7. patrick - February 28, 2008

Watched “Who Killed the Electric Car” recently, great documentary, then i heard that GM and Tesla are making another run at the electric car (yay for progress!)

8. Google Makes us Stupid « Synthèse - June 23, 2008

[…] Makes us Stupid So far, I’ve liked everything I’ve seen and read by Nicholas Carr (author of “The Big Switch: rewiring the world from Edison to […]

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