HEAD IN THE CLOUD: Microsoft researcher and "life logger" Gordon Bell considers cloud computing to be a new chapter in the eponymous Bell's Law, which describes how different approaches to computing arrive, evolve and eventually die out (or at least fade into the background). Image: COURTESY OF GORDON BELL
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The idea of cloud computing is to make all the information and services run in data centers around the world available via the Web. The reality of this is daunting. Data centers built by different businesses, government entities and research institutions are not inherently designed for sharing, and not all information can (or should) be available to anyone with access to a Web browser.
Many people think that as mobile, connected devices proliferate and broadband access expands, the cloud-computing model will prevail because it enables access to data and apps without the need for a lot of storage or processing power on the devices themselves.
Perhaps the foremost of those people is Gordon Bell, a principal researcher with Microsoft Research and a veteran "life logger," who spoke with Scientific American about what distinguishes cloud computing from the other types of Web services, why scientists need to get on board with the cloud model, and why someone would want to store a lifetime of memories in the digital abyss.
Bell considers cloud computing to be a new chapter in the eponymous Bell's Law, which he formulated in 1972 to describe how different approaches to computing arrive, evolve and eventually die out (or at least fade into the background). These new approaches come along roughly every decade and promise to make computers cheaper and more accessible. In the 1960s the mainframe introduced distributed computing and dumb terminals into the workplace. This was followed by minicomputers that essentially made mainframe capabilities available to smaller businesses. PCs followed, extending the reach of computing into the home and eventually allowing the Internet to grow in prominence. Most recently, wireless gadgets have allowed us to take computing with us wherever we go. The "cloud" is poised to take computing to the next level, according to Bell.
Although Bell has been working for Microsoft Research for nearly two decades, he makes a point that the views expressed in this interview are his alone and not those of his employer.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
How do you define "cloud computing"?
It is the next computing platform as described by Bell's Law of computer class formation. Like all new platforms, we can look at it in terms of the four functional components: storage, computational ability, network and user interface. With cloud computing the emphasis is on storage and networking to enable wide-scale, 24-by-seven access to data needed for transactions—scientific, financial or otherwise.
What distinguishes it from earlier hardware, network, application and data-hosting services?
In some ways nothing. The cloud has evolved from the large number of distributed servers that hosted Web content. What is different is the scale of these servers—tens of thousands of computers consuming 50 megawatts of power and hosting thousands of customers. Instead of each customer maintaining their own isolated servers, a hosting company is selling access to their servers as a service. The customers share computer systems, power, data-center space and maintenance services.
At what stage are we in the evolution of cloud services?
Amazon was first to use a cloud-computing model for their business and now is the leader in providing cloud services to other businesses. Entrepreneurs are exploiting Amazon's Web services, Microsoft's Windows Azure hosting platform and other cloud services in order to start up companies because of the zero capital equipment requirement. Payment is by credit card, and you pay as you go.