With new Web services, more companies are working in the ‘cloud’
Google, Apple, and now Microsoft turn the Internet into a portable filing cabinet for businesses.
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Only the massive will succeed
The concept of “the cloud” is turning computing into something more like a standardized commodity. Just as utilities provide electricity to a wide variety of businesses and individuals, a few giant computing companies may eventually provide computing services to everyone.
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“The cloud will be dominated by a fairly small number of companies,” says Nicholas Carr, author of “The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google,” widely considered to be the most influential book so far on the cloud computing movement.
Besides wondering what Google or Amazon might do with their information, companies also worry about performance. It’s vital to them that their data is always available.
“Performance of the [cloud service] companies is going to have to be at an extremely high level – at a level we expect from any utility,” Mr. Carr says. “But it doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be very, very good.”
The early track record has been good, with few outages. In some ways, using the cloud can be more reliable than trusting an in-house technical team, argues Matthew Glotzbach, product management director of Google Enterprise, which is trying to entice more businesses to use its cloud-computing services.
Even the best internal tech staff must regularly schedule down time for maintenance. Google never needs downtime, Mr. Glotzbach says. Its vast array of servers back each other up. Just as Google’s search is never “off-line,” neither are Google’s computing services, he says.
Could a wheezing economy inflate the cloud?
The current economic crisis may push another group of businesses into the cloud to save money, Mr. Reese says.
“In the last two weeks ... interest in the cloud has just exploded,” he says, as companies look to avoid having to find lenders to finance new computer hardware and software. “I think that lack of capital has created a very serious sudden interest in the cloud.”
Microsoft, which has made a fortune selling popular software for PCs, said late last month that it would join the competition by launching Windows Azure, a cloud-based operating system. It also says it will extend its Office programs onto the Web by offering stripped-down online versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote.
Cloud computing is going to have a “revolutionary influence on culture and the way we do things,” Reese says. Though the Web is frequently the source of wild predictions, “I haven’t said that about any other technology before,” he says.
Four ways to live among the clouds
Apple MobileMe service uses cloud computing technology to transfer data, such as a calendar, e-mail, or contacts, between a user’s computers (home and work, for example) and cellphone or other mobile devices. It also provides online storage for photos or videos. The MobileMe service was introduced in July and updated last week after suffering technical glitches.
Google Docs allows users to go online to create, edit, and store documents, visual presentations, and spreadsheets. These free services have many features in common with software installed on PCs, such as Microsoft Office. An online e-mail service such as Gmail or Yahoo! Mail is a form of cloud computing, since the messages are being stored “in the cloud.”
Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (AEC2) provides online computing services to companies of all sizes, letting them buy computing power on a “pay as you use” basis, with no upfront costs or contracts. For businesses, the service can be offered at attractive prices compared with the cost of buying and maintaining their own computer network.
Microsoft Azure, which was announced two weeks ago, will bring the software giant into the world of cloud computing services for businesses. Microsoft also announced that simple versions of its popular Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote programs will be available online.