Mostly Cloudy About the Cloud

Posted October 3rd, 2011 at 12:43 pm (UTC-4)

If cloud computing is the "inevitable future," we'd better find out about it.  (Miran Rijavec, Flickr Creative Commons)

Everyone who railed at me for writing about something I know little about when I spouted off about Algebra II courses in school, sharpen the computer equivalent of your pencils.

Every weekday morning when I fight with the alarm clock, I awaken to our local all-news station as well as a little sports talk, seeking an excuse to linger in bed.

Since I live on the doorstep of Washington, D.C., the golden goose for government contractors, I hear a lot of commercials that they run in hopes of impressing members of Congress and their staffs.  These often tout the companies’ computer expertise, tossing out jargon such as “scalable” and “network architecture.”

That’s heavy stuff at 6:30 in the morning.  Way over my head.  Up in The Cloud.

Not the clouds.  The Cloud — computing’s magic carpet these days.

Why is Cloud 9 so amazing? What is wrong with Cloud 8?—Mitch Hedberg

Just this morning, two different companies assured us they were all aboard The Cloud.  I hung with them until they reverted to talking about “service paradigms” and the like.

I say I was with them, but not exactly.  Simple though a Cloud sounds, I couldn’t quite grasp the concept.  [Of course not, you’re saying.  It’s a cloud!]

So when I got in to work, I asked a smarty-pants friend about it.

“Yes, the Cloud,” she said to me, indulgently.  “Your work doesn’t live in the computer box under your desk or the computer room down the hall.  It lives in the air, and things bounce off satellites and end up in a remote server somewhere.  Could be Kyrgyzstan.”

She got points for the Kyrgyzstan reference, but I sensed she was fudging the rest.

The Cloud is a real puzzle.  (Kurisu, Flickr Creative Commons)

The Cloud is a real puzzle. (Kurisu, Flickr Creative Commons)

So I asked another VOA colleague.  “Yeah, The Cloud,” he said.  “Bits and bytes are up there somewhere.  [He pointed to the ceiling.  For the sake of the VOA engineer who sits up there, I hope he didn’t mean the fourth-floor office above me.]  But you can go get the information any time you need it and pull it down.”

That didn’t help much.

“Sure, The Cloud,” a third person began, in a snooty tone, as if any fool knows what The Cloud is. “It’s virtualization,” he snorted — losing me early — “involving hosted services over the Internet, rather than traditional hosting.”  Or words to that effect.

Even putting all those explanations together, I wasn’t getting very far, Cloud-wise.  To me The Cloud was still a mysterious zephyr in cyberspace.

I think the world really boils down to two types of people — those who see shapes in cloud formations, and those who just see clouds.—Terri Guillemets

Could the Cloud imagery be too simple?  After all, computer geeks don’t call XenServers “rocks.”  Or ESXi consoles “kittens.”  It was if they’d ceded this particular computer nomenclature to a dreamer. Today’s Ralph Waldo Emerson.

I hadn't yet seen the light in The Cloud.  (daviddehetre, Flickr Creative Commons)

I hadn't yet seen the light in The Cloud. (daviddehetre, Flickr Creative Commons)

So I turned to the Web for Cloud clarity.  (Where do you think I came up with “XenServers”?)  There, I can tell you, neither an Emerson nor a Walt Whitman wrote the complex Google entries on The Cloud.

Luckily, Deborah Block, a colleague who works on VOA’s TV side, had done a story on the subject with a refreshingly simple title: “Cloud Computing”!

“Many people assume their emails, documents, photos and other information on the Internet are private,” she wrote.  “But that may not be true if they are stored on servers belonging to Internet companies.  Known as ‘cloud computing,’ the system gives people access to their files from anywhere in the world.”

We’re getting somewhere!  Things are only partly cloudy. (Sorry)

You must not blame me if I do talk to the clouds.—Henry David Thoreau

So I walked down the hall to an office belonging to a young man who has helped me through many technical blogging issues.  Things like “Where’s the SEND button?  He’s a master at demystifying computerese.

I won’t identify him, because I don’t want you blaming him if I blow the interpretation of The Cloud to follow.

Here’s what it’s about, as best as I understood what he told me:

Metal suitcase-like computer towers sit under our desks where our legroom ought to be.  These are computing’s foot soldiers, its pawns, the mighty mites of the computer world.  They process and store stuff — a technical term — that we create, send out, and bring in: documents, e-mails, photos, spreadsheets.

The Cloud is a silent revolution no longer.  A lot of noise is being made about it.  (Carlos de Miguel, Flickr Creative Commons)

The Cloud is a silent revolution no longer. A lot of noise is being made about it. (Carlos de Miguel, Flickr Creative Commons)

But big companies, and government agencies such as ours, need a whole lot more computing power than the sum total of these boxes.  After all, we’re doing stuff — that technoterm again — including heavy-duty engineering functions and radio and TV editing, all over the building that requires real computing oomph.

So down the hall, there is indeed a chilled room packed with something that looks like bakery racks, unfortunately stacked not with pastries but with heavy-duty computers called servers, humming away.

I visualize them humming, anyway; they don’t let me in there.

The cloud never comes from the quarter of the horizon from which we watch for it. —Elizabeth Gaskell

If these servers had hearts, they’d be valiant ones.  But even they just can’t keep up with our needs.  Like most electrical and mechanical things — more tech talk — servers slow down, wear out, act up, conk out, and become obsolete.  They’re difficult and expensive to fix, especially in a hurry, which we always are.  We can’t sell them when they go clunk because nobody wants yesterday’s toys.

And it costs a pretty penny — multiple thousands of pretty pennies — to buy new ones.  Purchasing and maintaining more and more and more upgraded servers was busting the budget.  And in the news-and-information business, ever-newer technology  required more computing power than that room full of hummers could handle.

We weren’t alone in this pickle.  All over the world, companies and research firms and foundations kept launching projects that required more computing power than their hardware could produce, or that they could afford.

For the unititiated, The Cloud was a stormy proposition at first.  (karindalziel, Flickr Creative Commons)

For the unititiated, The Cloud was a stormy proposition at first. (karindalziel, Flickr Creative Commons)

What to do?

Along came smart, entrepreneurial computer companies that dangled an offer too tempting to refuse:

THEY would build, service, expand, and replace, as needed, HUGE servers — not at our place but at theirs in Kokomo or Kansas City — or maybe even Kyrgyzstan.  Then they’d RENT computing time on them at rates ranging from a few cents to a couple of dollars per “computational minute.”

Companies and agencies came to realize that they could tie to these external “host” servers — off in a figurative Cloud somewhere — wash their hands of most of the computer maintenance and upgrade hassle, and get a lot more done for far less than they’d been spending.  “Ted Landphair’s America’s” host server, for instance, is in Colorado, 2,700 km from my keyboard.

Besides the monetary savings, The Cloud puts almost unlimited computing capacity at our fingertips. If the world goes haywire, as it often does, our computers automatically hook to as many Cloud servers in who-knows-where as it takes to provide the computing power we need to cover it.

At a steep price.  But the rest of the time, the meter is running slowly and inexpensively.

Happiness is like a cloud.  If you stare at it long enough, it evaporates.—Sarah McLachlan

In short, on The Cloud, our computer capacity can be resized, up or down, at a micro-moment’s notice.

Already we have DEGREES of Clouds! (Michigan Municipal League (MML), Flickr Creative Commons)

Already we have DEGREES of Clouds! (Michigan Municipal League (MML), Flickr Creative Commons)

No wonder my young friend calls The Cloud a revolutionary “thought process” as much as some fancy new way to connect computers.  On it, even you and I at home — as well as operations a thousand times bigger — can tap at will into computing resources far more powerful and extensive than we could ever afford to buy and run ourselves.

In her story, Debbie Block reported that “one research survey found that almost 70 percent of Americans use at least one cloud service,” so you’re probably drifting along on The Cloud as you read this.

Her story also addressed a concern that may be gnawing at you:

If we’re sending our information, some of it secret and sensitive, to The Cloud via a network, and that network includes the public Internet, aren’t we incredibly vulnerable to snooping — not just by spies and mischief-making hackers, but also by our own security and law-enforcement agencies?

“[Information] is going out on somebody’s servers,” Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, reminded Debbie Block.  “It’s going out on a backbone that can be monitored.  And so, there are ways in which the law-enforcement community can capture some of these communications and analyze them.”

Please don’t ask me what a “backbone” is.

In 2009, a month or so after the world’s first large-scale Cloud security workshop in Chicago, MIT’s “Technology Review” Web site asked a noted cryptology pioneer to weigh in on The Cloud’s vulnerability.

One of The Cloud's possibilities, critics worry, could be insecure information floating about.  (rafaeldesigner, Flickr Creative Commons)

One of The Cloud's possibilities, critics worry, could be insecure information floating about. (rafaeldesigner, Flickr Creative Commons)

Whitfield Diffie, a former Sun Microsystems executive, told Technology Review, “The effect of the growing dependence on cloud computing is similar to that of our dependence on public transportation, particularly air transportation, which forces us to trust organizations over which we have no control, limits what we can transport, and subjects us to rules and schedules that wouldn’t apply if we were flying our own planes. On the other hand, it is so much more economical that we don’t realistically have any alternative.”

If you don’t want your information to be readable on The Cloud, don’t send anything but encrypted data, he advised.  But “if you want the cloud to do some actual computing for you, you don’t have that alternative.”

This sounds dire, but others point out that firms and agencies dealing with top-secret materials have many ways to protect the information they send to The Cloud.  Commentators that I’ve read, and sometimes understood, have pointed out that determined hackers have successfully breached in-house computer systems just as readily as they’ve intercepted stuff on The Cloud.

Behind every cloud is another cloud.—Judy Garland

I’m sure there are many more thunderheads in this Cloud business. And I’ve nearly reached the limits of my ability to explain the phenomenon with this cute, pillowy name.  I will note two more things, though:

Cloud imagery has been around for some time in computing circles.  (Sam Johnston, Wikipedia Commons)

Cloud imagery has been around for some time in computing circles. (Sam Johnston, Wikipedia Commons)

The Cloud is not a panacea.  It wouldn’t work well at all for certain applications, you might need to use on your computer.  Sending all the needed signals for our video-editing program to The Cloud, for instance, would slow things down too much.  So that remains an in-house, local function.

And if you’ve been wondering, all along, how the “Cloud” name came to be chosen, it was because of all the cloud-like illustrations — such as the one on the right – that for years have been used to describe the Internet and other “virtual” computer connections.

I invite you to help me out, set me straight, fill in the gaps, so long as you spoon-feed us techno-dolts who aren’t yet strapped in on The Cloud’s magic carpet ride.

Ted's Wild Words

These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!

Fudging. Presenting something in a vague or confusing way in order to mislead, conceal the truth, or hide one’s actual ignorance of the subject.

Indulgent. Generous, lenient, forgiving — sometimes to a fault. Indulgent parents, for instance, may soon find that they’ve raised a spoiled child.

Paradigm. Pronounced “PARR-uh-dime,” this word, favored in science and math circles, refers to a pattern or model of something. An archetype.

8 responses to “Mostly Cloudy About the Cloud”

  1. […] full post on budget cloud server – Google News Posts Related to Mostly Cloudy About the Cloud – Voice of America (blog)Cloudy with a chance of VPS […]

  2. […] – det er de USB sticks som dine medarbejdere har med ind. Læs i øvrigt Ted Landphairs glimrende artikel om hans opdagelse af cloud computing. Posted in Generelt – Tagged Cloud computing, IBM, […]

  3. […] reference, but I sensed she was fudging the rest. The Cloud is a real puzzle. … Read more on Voice of America (blog) Posted in: Uncategorized   Tags: Burleson, charity, Lions, Nate, serve, steaks, […]

  4. Gary Hinshaw says:

    Happy days are here again;
    The skies above are clear again.

    Thanks for demystifying a murky concept.

  5. tland says:

    Dear Gary and Everyone:

    My colleague, Doug Johnson, also wrote about the cloud, and quite clearly, recently. His whole thing is to demystify technology, and I even understood his take on The Cloud. So check him out, too, at:



  6. […] Mostly Cloudy About the Cloud “Yeah, The Cloud,” he said. “Bits and bytes are up there somewhere. [He pointed to the ceiling. For the sake of the VOA engineer who sits up there, I hope he didn't mean the fourth-floor office above me.] But you can go get the information any time you … Read more on Voice of America (blog) […]

  7. Randall Krieg says:

    Your tech friend down the hall and Dr. Diffie are your best sources here. Cloud computing means your information is primarily stored on a group of computers that’s outside your physical space and out of the direct control of your organization. It may also mean that those computers are doing something with that information (processing it to get some result), but this isn’t essential — you only need to care about that part if you are looking to tap into computing power that isn’t available inside your organization.
    Dr. Diffie’s comparison to public transport is great, I hadn’t heard this before. But you didn’t quite pick up on what he said: it is possible for you to protect (encrypt) your information before sending it into the cloud, in such a way that NOBODY, not even the government, can read it. But if you do so, then the server in the cloud can’t open it either, and can’t do anything with it except send it back when you want it, or forward it to someone. That might be OK if it’s a picture you’re e-mailing, but if it’s a dataset that you need processed, you have to let the computer in the cloud open it up.
    The way I think of the cloud metaphor is this: when you send something from one person to another, the information is moving from one point to another, then it stops. And if you put it on a web site, it sits there for anyone to see and access — it’s sort of fixed in place. But when you put it in the cloud, it can be stored anywhere — you have little control over its movement. It can even be broken into pieces, with one part stored on a hard disk in Tallahassee and another part on a disk in Walla Walla. Even if you were to ask the top engineer at the company that manages the cloud where all the pieces are, he might not be able to tell you without a lot of detailed analysis. In fact there are probably copies of each piece stored in multiple places at once, to guard against the failures of any one spot. (And pieces stored on multiple disks in the server room, to guard against failure of any given disk.) All that matters to you is that when you ask for the information, it gets reassembled in the right order, and is always available.

  8. tland says:

    Dear Randall,

    Thanks for this quite helpful reply. It’s taken me awhile to publish it because I’ve been away, galloping around the country. I’ll pass it along to my colleague down the hall, too!

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Ted Landphair


This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith


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