Living among the clouds

Rui Shi

Meg Whitman recently made one of her first public appearances as CEO of Hewlett-Packard in a video conference with a group of college technology leaders. The main topic of this meeting was to announce HP’s participation in a “community cloud” for higher education institutions.

The idea is to establish a pool of high-performing computers and servers in one location. Then, researchers anywhere would be able to able to access the pool through the Internet. This project could be a game-changer for college campuses, but it must be extended so that everyone, especially students, can access it. The community cloud is certainly not the first foray into cloud computing, as other services have been around for the better part of the past decade. However, this project could become one of the trend-setters that popularizes the concept.

“Cloud computing” is a general term used to describe the delivery of a service over the Internet. The major caveat of cloud computing is that nothing is stored locally — all data and software is stored in external servers. For example, have you ever wondered why you are able to access Facebook from any device anywhere? The reason is because all your information is stored and managed by Facebook itself, not by your computer or iPhone. The only thing you need is a browser to access this data.

The community cloud in which HP will participate would work in much the same way. This service would allow professors, researchers and, in the future, students to choose from a large variety web-based applications to accomplish a specific task. One of the big advantages of a collective pool is that colleges would be able to collectively bargain with software companies to drive down costs.

Something like this would especially be helpful at UT in times of budget cuts as software licensing costs the University a significant amount.

Cloud computing has the potential to dramatically change the way students interact with their computers.

Implementing cloud computing means that individual computers can be stripped down to just the browser.

Students would no longer have to worry about installing software or storing data on individual machines. Instead, they can connect to an online service that would provide the same functions. And because everything is tied to an external server, students would never have to worry about losing data, applications crashing or updating software.

Everything is externally managed and can be accessed with a click of the mouse.

A cloud computing framework greatly simplifies the computing experience while maintaining functionality. It offers flexibility in that your data is no longer tied down to an individual machine. Your data can be accessed anywhere at any time. There is also no longer a need for extensive storage space or high-end computer features.

The most visible example of this at UT is Blackboard.

Students are able to access class documents, submit assignments and participate in discussions through this system. Now, imagine expanding this idea to everything else. Students would could write and store their essays online and would no longer have to buy and use Microsoft Word. They could play games without having to install them on their computers. The potential for the cloud is unmatched, yet there are also several pitfalls that must be addressed in the coming future.

The first challenge is that the nature of cloud computing calls for a constant Internet connection. Since everything is stored externally, a connection must exist to access anything, including personal documents. A dead Internet connection means no work, period. Another knock on cloud computing is the lack of features in comparison to its desktop counterparts. This situation is bound to change in the future, but today’s web-based applications simply aren’t as full-featured because of development limitations. Finally, the biggest problem with cloud computing lies in its security.

Because cloud computing is externally managed, universities and students cannot control the number of possible security holes. Companies say that stored data is secure but in this past year, companies such as Sony have had large troves of confidential user data stolen.

Cloud computing could become the next big thing to hit consumer markets, but only time will tell whether or not this trend will catch on.

Shi is an electrical and computer engineering junior.