Saturday, January 10, 2009

Into the Clouds

I have joined the ranks of those who compute “in the clouds!” Well, not really. But I did recently purchase a "netbook.”

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, “cloud computing” is the moniker given to the concept of using the existence of ubiquitous internet access to shift data and applications which one used to run on a personal computer to the web. By hosting data and applications on the internet, one becomes independent of any particular PC, being able to access their personal information from any internet access point. As a result of this, one’s personal computers tend to shift from larger more powerful processor machines to focus instead on connectivity (LAN, wireless, etc) and portability. Hence the purchase of my MSI Wind netbook.

Cloud computing isn’t really anything new. Most large corporations like the one I work for have had large corporate networks using a similar type of approach for years. Since1995, my company has implemented such a network. Today, all employees have basic laptops, outfitted with standardized software, and wireless capability. Our files are stored collectively on servers rather than on our machines. We can access those files via VPN connections from any internet connection. Most recently we converted to VoIP telephony so that our telephones use internet connections to transfer data rather than regular phone lines. I have a phone emulator on my laptop as well. This means that I can sit down anywhere in the world, plug in my laptop and it is as if I was sitting in my office. I can go anywhere I want, and my “stuff” is “up in the clouds.”

However, until recently that required a lot of back-end infrastructure and support which wasn’t necessarily available to the individual consumer. That is all changing however. I actually noticed the change slowly over the last year or two. My current machine is a 17” Dell Laptop, high res, DVD, large capacity hard drive. It’s portable but not convenient. I certainly wouldn’t take it with me on vacation. Over the last few years; however, I began shifting applications and data storage to the web. First my email went when I started using Google’s Gmail. Then I switched my RSS feed to Google Reader. I recently began creating and hosting some of my documents using Google Documents. I eliminated my home phone by switching to Skype. As this began happening I found that I preferred to grab my work laptop and sit downstairs in an easy chair or by the fireplace rather than up at my desk with my big Dell. It was a more convenient machine because it was smaller, lighter, had great wireless connectivity, rock solid operating system, simply no hassle. I was slowing migrating my home computing environment to a cloud environment without realizing it.

Then earlier this year, Gus bought an ASUS eePC netbook and I was intrigued. I’ve been watching netP1080023book models with interest over the last several months and finally decided to take the plunge. My Wind is a small, ultra-portable, paperback-sized PC, costing approximately $400; wireless card, 160 GB hard drive, 1024x600 high-res 10” screen,1Mpixel webcam, running a stable WinXP OS. All of this comes in a small beautiful white package, weighing 2 lbs and measuring about 9”x7” (about the size of a large format paperback book. It has as much computing power and screen resolution as my Thinkpad T60 I use for work, but in an ultra-light package. In fact, as I write this, I’m sitting downstairs in my easy chair, listening to music, and typing comfortably away. Almost everything I can access upstairs on my big Dell machine, I can also access here. I’ve included a picture of my Wind next to my 17” Dell and a large paperback for comparison.

For those of you who know me, I’m a “value” buyer. I don’t need the flashiest. I want dependability and functionality for the price. My experience with Mac’s for instance has always been that they are very pretty, and cutting edge, and overpriced for the functionality provided. (If you want that sort of thing, more power to you.) I thought a long time about the cost vs. the functionality I’d be buying, and in my estimation, what I expect of this thing for the $400 I paid is good value. So these are the functions I expect to utilize for the new Wind, those which are enabled by it’s portability.

  • Roaming laptop: Yes, I want to blog from the coffee shop. Yes, I want to have a laptop with me on vacation and not have to remember how heavy it is. I’ve already tied in Google Documents offline functionality so I have document editing capability even offline.
  • Stereo component: I love Pandora. For those of you who’ve not used it and love discovering music, you must. Type in any favorite song or artist, and Pandora will pull music that is similar. I don’t mean similar as in genre. I mean similar musical structure. I’ve long wanted to stream it to my stereo, but the dedicated devices that do it, still cost hundreds of dollars.
  • DVR: I don’t have cable service, but I do have Netflix subscription, which I love. For those of you who’ve played around with their on-demand streaming video, it’s superb. Yes there are boxes you can get that interface, but again, they’re in the $100’s.
  • Phone: like my office phone, I now have my personal phone and voicemail anywhere in the world I choose to be.
  • eBook reader: The netbook is about the size of large format paperback, and given it’s size and weight it is suitable to carry as an eBook reader. I can rotate the screen orientation and hold it in my hand as I would an open book. I’ve long carried books on my cell phone for those times when I’m travelling and need some diversion. Mobipocket reader has a PC version as well, and it has nice, basic functionality, along with direct access to their eBook store. In addition I’ve fallen in love with Gutenberg where you can obtain e-versions of open domain literature. The beauty of this setup is that in something the size of a single book, I can carry my entire library, and access to virtual bookstores where I can obtain additional reading instantly. (However, I may opt for one of the new Kindle’s when the come out.)

So that’s the story. I’ll keep you posted on how it works out.


Beth said...

I am intrigued by cloud computing and can see the convenience. Do yo know anything about the security of putting information on the net? I am thinking of things like personal finance. My laptop is also functionally portable --but realistically too large and heavy to port around conveniently. Yet is is nice to have access to everything on one computer.
Do you plan to switch everything to the cloud?

Kendall J said...


Great question. I think there are several issues there, and various layers of consideration. Data security and data integrity are certainly concerns.

As far as the hosting service you use, you obviously have to check into their policies as far as both access and data backup. Maybe the biggest weakpoint is someone getting access to your account information in the process of you using that account (but there are also personal practices to help avoid that).

Data, in transit (i.e. going back and forth from your computer) would be available unless it is encrypted. For instance at work, we use a VPN network to go over the internet. It is fully encrypted. I don't think most personal data in transit is encrypted, but I'm admittedly not an IT expert here.

In general, regardless of the security offered, I consider any data hosted as "semi-private." I don't host any financial data externally, nor do do any banking transactions externally. That's really the data that people would want in a big way, and I don't take chances there. I don't plan to switch anything that someone would want, and could do significant damage by obtaining over to a cloud environment. I really let my usage patters help me see what I really get value out of by switching. If I have a need to carry some valueable information with me, I have a USB stick drive that has a password secured partition on it. Get the password wrong after three tries and it reformats the stick. I haven't investigated any software package that would take that severe approach with the laptop itself, but it sounds like a good idea.

I think the biggest security issue to think about is what if you lose the portable, and someone gains access to it. What is on it or what can it implicitly access that you don't want to. I think if you have a portable machine that you take out often, then you have to commit to only use that machine for cloud type computing. Don't store personal information on it's hard drive. Don't keep the operating system un-password protected. Don't enable cookies and such on that machine. If you want to use such information when you are on your private network, then host the files on your home machine and make them accessible to the cloud machine, but only when you're on your home network (which you should secure yourself) You must assume that your cloud machine, when out and about is unsecure. I think the biggest issues is cookies since they contain password information. Disable them.

That includes how you configure the cloud machine's network set up. Consider that you might log onto public unsecured networks (such as are common in many coffee shops and wifi spots) So I have firewall enabled on the machine itself. I don't share folders on the machine, and I have spyware and such fully loaded on it. (incremental protection is easy to add to a subscription service like McAfee)

My work for instance views the laptop itself as the biggest security vulnuerability. It's policy not to use those on public unsecured networks, and they are locked down with security features. It would be smart to think of your cloud machine that way. The only personal files I keep on this machine are music files.

One note on that. I originally bought the machine with a small, high capacity hard drive of 160GB. I can see, that given it's "cloud" configuration, this is overkill, and I doubt I will ever use that sort of capacity since I've committed not to carry any data on the machine itself. All you really need is enough storage to load any software you forsee on the machine. If I were to do it over, I'd swap the hard disk for the newer solid state drives (which top out these days at 32 GB or so - plenty) which are much more shock proof. Given that all of these things have card readers, I can also add another 16GB or so via an SD card and have plenty. The most fragile part of the machine then would be the screen.

Another thought for my readers (and I don't know if you have kids or not) is that these machines would make great starting computers for kids. I don't think you'd want to let them roam with it without you, but if you worry at all about your kids sharing your machine and accidentally screwing with your personal data integrity, then these are really an interesting option. Light, cheap, fully functional, and even "kid size". C. August at Titanic Deck Chairs just had a post about buying his 5 yr old a digital camera and I think this sort of idea is really neat.

If some readers with IT experience have some additional thoughts, I'd appreciate it.

Beth said...

Wow. thanks for all the great info!