Cloud computing and "The Cloud"  have become popular buzz words lately.  The latest Microsoft commercials are starting to make the term more known outside of the IT world.  But what exactly is it?

You'll get different answers depending on who you ask, and all the hype would have you thinking it's the latest and greatest invention, but in the broadest sense, it is simply the concept of having work done and data residing somewhere other than your physical machine.

I put "concept" in bold because that's the part that I think a lot of people miss.  It's not some specific technology or product, but just an idea.  Not even a new idea.

I'll let that sink in for a bit.

The idea (not the term) of cloud computing has been around since the very early days of computing.  The idea has been around since as early as the 1960's with one of the first manifestations of the idea being the ARPAnet, the predecessor to what is now the internet.

Various forms of what could be called cloud computing are already commonplace in the consumer space.  Any kind of web app, webmail, Google Docs, every Facebook app, anything that's a program that you don't have to download is living "in the cloud".

Two questions came to my mind when the term started picking up as a buzz word.  "Why now?" and "What's the big deal?"   I'll tackle these questions in reverse order.

First off, what's the big deal?  In the consumer space I think it's somewhat old news, it's something most internet users are already using.  The business world is usually more cautious and later adopters. Businesses are also traditionally more cautious about privacy and ownership of data.  The idea of their (intellectual) property being in the hands of someone else is less than ideal.

There are also issues of reliability and control.  If your servers go down, you have control and can make it top priority to get your customers back up and running.  If you're relying on someone else to keep your customers online they may have other priorities and that is out of your control.

Many businesses, especially smaller ones, are getting over this mentality because honestly, a dedicated company is going to be able to do a more reliable job, and it means you don't need to hire a dedicated person to make sure your machines that are serving your customers are always up and running.

So why now?  Technology is finally at a place where this has become feasible.  The internet has become ubiquitous.  You generally wouldn't ask someone if they have internet access, it's just assumed.  You don't ask if someone has an email address, you just ask what it is and assume that they have one.  Not only has internet in general become commonplace, but broadband internet is also widespread, meaning not only is the channel there, it is also fast enough to deliver the data and services efficiently.

The internet has become a valid distribution channel.  Web apps bypass a lot of the issues with distribution of traditional applications.  Cross platform comes for free.  No need to worry about creating a Mac version and Windows version (or Linux if that fits your target audience).  You can use them on public computers (with the usual precautions like remembering to log off whatever service you're using) without having to worry about installation.  You can access your stuff from anywhere.

That last sentence is important.  It is an answer to both "Why now?" and "What's the big deal?".

Mobility is shifting towards being something that's expected.  Being able to work on things from anywhere is quickly becoming an expectation from consumers and in the near future I suspect from businesses.  For many companies right now, mobility it's limited to mostly email, while most work still needs to be done in the office.

The cloud is a big deal because it allows for unprecedented mobility.  I can start writing a post at home and finish it at a friend's house.  In fact I've done so.  The cloud is important now because mobility is important now and will only become more so as it becomes an expectation.  Internet access on phones are now common and moving towards becoming standard.

The other benefit of the cloud that I haven't touched on yet is that it enables sharing and collaboration on a level that has not been possible in the past.  Whether it's sharing the latest news on Twitter, working together on a spreadsheet in Google Docs, or all your personal information on Facebook (j/k, hopefully) .  The world has become a lot more internationalized than ever.  I don't have any statistics, but I'm sure the number of people from other countries than the average person knows is probably twice what it was 10-20 years ago.

So what is "The Cloud"?  It is an ancient idea (in computing timeline) of having "stuff" that you can use from anywhere, and technology has finally come to a saturation point where it has become both feasible and economical to do at a large scale.  From a conceptual standpoint it is also another layer of abstraction like the operating system described in a previous post.