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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Revolution in the Making

Single computers are slow, have very little storage and cannot be considered truly reliable when compared to the monster machines available in the "Cloud". Compare your 2 GB RAM to the hundreds of terabytes available at, say Google. Compare a single copy of your files on a single hard disk (which is how big? One tera?) to the space available at data centers and to the backup available at these centers with their expensive hardware, qualified staff and standard procedures for backup and preservation of data. Did I forget your single CPU (OK, so you have 2 processors)? Compare that to hundreds of thousands of CPUs available to you online. There's no comparison. If you can do a lot on your tiny, single computer at home or office, imagine what you can do with the thousands of computers available to you online. And a lot of the features provided are FREE.

The features are provided to you through the concept of "Cloud Computing". The cloud refers to all the computers, their storage, and CPUs which are available online. Some of the features provided are backup and storage, simple apps, complex apps, and last but not least, sharing.

Online backup is provided by many companies free of charge for a basic service and a paid premium service. Some companies offer unlimited free storage. Other companies offer less storage, but more features. While it sounds a bit strange to store your information online, it also makes sense. There will be sensitive information that you will not want to put online, this is understandable. But there are many many more items which can be stored online, and even shared with the world without any privacy concerns. Most people already share photos and videos that are not considered private, yet their private collection is kept locally, and away from the rest of the world. The great thing about storing in the Cloud is that you can access it from anywhere, any time. From your home PC, office PC, mobile, or from a web cafe or friend's home. This comes in very handy in case of a hard disk failure, and who hasn't gone through that? I recently lost 3 disk totaling about 300 GB. True, I had a back up of the most vital of data, but I still lost some good stuff that I really wanted to keep. The Cloud could've saved me, but I had not known about these sites at the time. All I had known was that used to offer 50MB a few years ago, and I remember that they stopped this service a long time ago.

Another use of the Cloud is simple online applications, such as an online office. Zoho and Google Docs are good examples of this. I personally use Google Docs. It's free. Easy to use. Easy to start. It allows import and conversion of your current documents, spreadsheets and powerpoints. It provides export features as well. My most needed export feature is PDF. It also allows you to "Convert to PDF and email". And the best feature they provide is sharing and collaboration. For me, this is a great advantage over the traditional "Edit locally, attach in email, wait for reply" method. The online method allows your colleagues to see the changes almost in real time, point you to errors, or they can just fix the errors immediately. After finishing the document, a simple click of "Convert to PDF and email" will send the document to your customer, boss, or whoever it is intended for. All this for free, all you need is a browser. This is a huge plus compared to having an office suite and PDF converter which will cost you plenty and take up your already limited resources from disk space, to memory to CPU. This is not to mention the bugs often found in such software, or the inefficient use of memory. Try opening a small file, 1 MB, document in MS Word and view memory usage in task manager. Sometimes you will see 40 MB being used. For what? Try the same with Adobe Acrobat. I can't understand or justify the use of so much memory for such a small file. Let Google or Zoho worry about memory, not me.

More sophisticated features are available, such as distributed processing, where thousands of CPUs are used to make complex calculations. One such application is Google's Voice Search. Voice search requires voice recognition, which has not been really practical, even though it has been here for quite some time. Google has included Voice Search on mobile devices, where processing power and memory are very limited. Voice Search utilizes the Cloud for matching spoken words to a database of existing patterns, allowing it to give very accurate results in both recognizing the spoken words, and in delivering the most relevant results. This is done by comparing the search query to the most recent queries and providing the result based on what the many computers in Google's grid suggest.