Screenshot: Soundcloud—one of my favourite examples of a website (and mobile app) that uses cloud computing to good effect. Musicians and DJs upload their music, which “followers” can listen to (or preview) for free through real-time streaming. You can build up a personal collection of tracks you like and access them from any device, anytime, anywhere. The music you listen to stays up in the cloud: in theory, there is only ever one copy of every music file that’s uploaded. Where is the music stored? No-one but Sound cloud needs to know—or care.
Most of us use cloud computing all day long without reallizing it. When you sit at your PC and type a query into Google, the computer on your desk isn’t playing much part in finding the answers you need: it’s no more than a messenger. The words you type are swiftly shuttled over the Net to one of Google’s hundreds of thousands of clustered PCs, which dig out your results and send them promptly back to you. When you do a Google search, the real work in finding your answers might be done by a computer sitting in California, Dublin, Tokyo, or Beijing; you don’t know—and most likely you don’t care!
The same applies to Web-based email. Once upon a time, email was something you could only send and receive using a program running on your PC (sometimes called a mail client). But then Web-based services such as Hotmail came along and carried email off into the cloud. Now we’re all used to the idea that emails can be stored and processed through a server in some remote part of the world, easily accessible from a Web browser, wherever we happen to be. Pushing email off into the cloud makes it supremely convenient for busy people, constantly on the move.
Preparing documents over the Net is a newer example of cloud computing. Simply log on to a web-based service such as Google Documents and you can create a document, spreadsheet, presentation, or whatever you like using Web-based software. Instead of typing your words into a program like Microsoft Word or OpenOffice, running on your computer, you’re using similar software running on a PC at one of Google’s world-wide data centers. Like an email drafted on Hotmail, the document you produce is stored remotely, on a Web server, so you can access it from any Internet-connected computer, anywhere in the world, any time you like. Do you know where it’s stored? No! Do you care where it’s stored? Again, no! Using a Web-based service like this means you’re “contracting out” or “outsourcing” some of your computing needs to a company such as Google: they pay the cost of developing the software and keeping it up-to-date and they earn back the money to do this through advertising and other paid-for services.