The buzzword of the next generation of web programmers is the “cloud”, or cloud computing. It is the centralization of processing power and storage into the web. I’m going to take a look into the risks and rewards of this new paradigm.

Google recently gave us a first look at their new Chrome operating system, designed for netbooks. The new operating system seeks to provide users with an OS solely for using the web.

Screenshot of Chrome OS

In essence, the Chrome browser IS the operating system. Installing new binaries will be impossible and the system will repair and update itself automatically, meaning a far greater level of security than any OS before it. Of course this also means that everything you do is dependent on a connection to the internet and performed on a server out in the cloud

By putting money and effort into this project, Google shows their commitment to cloud computing as the future of computing in life, work and entertainment.

The Risks:

The gamble inherent in centralized processing and storage is self-evident. What happens when the server goes down, or even just the connection between the client and the server?

Some of Google’s own cloud applications seek to address such risks with offline access to the applications through Gears. This however will not allow a user access to collaborative, dynamic and social information that requires online interaction.

Another risk inherent in the cloud, is one of privacy. To store personal and private data in the cloud means giving over control of that data to a third party, if only by physically containing it within their online storage. What measures are there, or will there be in place to protect that data from third parties.

An example of the tenuous nature of privacy can be found with the RIAA’s (recording industry association of america) interaction with ISP’s. A simple assurance of foul play by RIAA, without court/judiciary intervention compels many ISP’s to warn and ban their users.

This is an example of power held by an organization. But power to threaten and intimidate can come from government also. And where there is power there is almost always corruption.

So either by internal or external forces on the keepers of data in the cloud, that data may not always be secure.

The Rewards:

Access anywhere… this has to be one of the greatest advantages of cloud computing. The ability for our work and social lives to take place from anywhere, upon a common platform that spans all devices and computers… the web browser.

Currently I am writing this article on the web inside my browser through a javascript and php based content management portal called WordPress.

HTML5 will bring with it web-based applications closer resembling those that are currently found offline on the PC. And even now, applications in javascript and flash go along way to achieving that goal.

One that has recently taken my attention is a web based Photoshop clone called Pixlr created with flash.

Pixlr - Flash Photoshop clone

Another example showcasing some of what browser native javascript can do is Google’s own document suite, with a Presentation Creator/viewer, Word Processor and Spreadsheet application with plenty of nice features built in. Flowcharts and diagrams can also be created within the presentation and word processing apps.

Google's web-based presentation software

So you can see the access-anywhere advantages of the cloud are not only restricted to simple web applications, but an increasingly advanced range of software.

The coming age

Freedom is the name of the game. The future will find us much more detached from our home PC’s. Our important data and applications will be accessible from anywhere. At the beach, at the office, at home, and any old terminal with a connection to the internet.

Imagine being on holidays with a camera full of video. It won’t be long and you’ll be able to plug that camera into any computer and edit your movies straight from the browser. Things such as film editing, once confined only to a powerful PC, will use fast internet and powerful servers to achieve their goals.

And this will ultimately be the shining advantage of the cloud. Those whose processing requirements are varied will not have to commit to a single build machine. The computer the user is sitting at will be an afterthought for many users (besides perhaps the size of the monitor). The majority of their work can be done on a supercomputer in the cloud.

The server-centric model will perhaps also drive the development of quantum computing, allowing for infinitely more powerful processing on the server, and ultimately allowing more of the work of the local computer to be transferred to the server. Google recently announced that it has used quasi-quantum computing to speed up image recognition (see here). While it is questionable whether this can truly be considered quantum computing yet, it clearly shows their intent.

Heading into this new age of the cloud, we can perhaps look towards Google as the most prominent leader, championing the new paradigm, but we can already see companies across the I.T. spectrum picking up this ball and running with it, helping to carry it towards success.

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