Understanding Cloud Computing

Cloud computing on smartphones and tablets

Let’s start simple. I’m sitting at home thinking I really need a training schedule to motivate myself at the gym. So, following the old model of computing, I draw up a schedule on a spreadsheet, print it out, take the sheet of paper to the gym, record my exercises, take it home and type in the stats to the spreadsheet.
This is rather inefficient, I think, so how about putting the spreadsheet on my iPad, taking the iPad to the gym and entering the data direct to the iPad after each exercise – is this possible?

Step 1 I upload the Excel spreadsheet (and a test Word document as well) to both Google Docs and Microsoft SkyDrive. I can edit both the documents online from my PC using Google Apps and Office Live software. There are benefits already as I can now read, edit and print these documents from any location with an Internet connection. But I don’t want to lug my PC to the gym – can I access the documents from my iPad?

Step 2 Open the iPad, run the browser and sign in to my Google account. Visit Google Docs and, yes, I can open the spreadsheet and perform basic editing functions (type a value into a cell) – but that’s about it. There are no menus or toolbars visible and I can’t enter a formula or format a cell. I can also open and read the Word document from Google Docs but can’t edit it.

It's the same story on SkyDrive – I can open and view both documents in Office Live but not edit them.

Step 3. So what I need on the iPad is some cheap software that can process spreadsheet and word processed documents stored on Google Docs or SkyDrive. A quick search and Documents to Go at $16.99 seems to have what I need – Excel and Word compatibility, access and sync files on Google Docs – but the user reviews do not encourage a purchase.

Is there a better option? Apple sell their own Pages word processor, Numbers spreadsheet and Mobile Me online data storage for the iPad. It sounds fine but the Mobile Me component costs US$90 per annum and it’s not compatible with Google Docs.

So. There is still a way to go to achieve my cloud computing goals of low cost, reliable, anywhere computing on the iPad. But on the PC it is a different story.

Cloud computing on personal computers

Here is the big picture of cloud computing on a PC or laptop as of November 2010, remembering that this is constantly changing.

Google's cloud

The Standard Edition of Google Apps online productivity software can be used free of charge. An organisation may have up to 50 user accounts. Maximum storage is 1 Gb per user. Facilities offered include Gmail, Google Calendar, spreadsheet and word processor.

Google Apps Premier Edition costs US$50 per user per year for an unlimited number of accounts and each user can have an email account in their business name (eg Bill.Smith@yourname.com.au) with 25 Gb of email storage per user. This includes backup and archiving services. Google commits to a guaranteed uptime of 99.9%.

Microsoft's cloud

Microsoft offers a free online version of Office called Office Live. Documents may be stored on SkyDrive through a personal Windows Live account with maximum storage of 25 Gb. Facilities offered include Hotmail, spreadsheet, word processor and other applications.

The business version of Office Live and Skydrive has just been re-branded as Office 365 Small Business and is priced at US$72 - $324 per user per year depending on the range of facilities required. This will be available in Australia in 2011.

Here is a fairly recent comparison of Office Live and Google Apps – recent is important as these technologies change quickly.

The benefits of cloud computing include:

  • No capital costs. You are using someone else's hardware and software. If there is a cost it will be a monthly rental charge
  • A growing range of software beyond the ubiquitous email, calendar, word processor and spreadsheet. Myob recently introduced LiveAccounts, an online version of the popular MYOB accounting software, for a fee of $25 per month.
  • Simplification. Because you don’t have to maintain complex IT systems a small business can have access to the same facilities as bigger organisations with dedicated IT departments. All you need is a computer with a browser and an Internet connection. User account management, anti-virus, backup and archiving is done for you.
  • Automation. Someone else keeps the software and anti-virus up to date – no more fees for software updates.
  • Mobility. You can access your data and applications from any location with Internet access.
    Scalable. You can add more users without needing to add more hardware or system resources.

The disadvantages of cloud computing include:

  • It is outside your control so if your Internet connection is down then so is your IT department.
  • There may be issues regarding the privacy and security of data if it is stored on server farms in multiple legal jurisdictions.
  • The online versions of the applications don’t offer the capability and sophistication of Excel and Word – but many users don’t need the more advanced features.

Cloud computing for the big boys

This article gives a succinct overview of cloud computing for larger organisations from a Chief Information Officer's perspective.


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