The Cloud is a Lie.

Now, I want to start this blog post with a caveat that I am in no way an engineer or a coder. I’m not a computer science guy, I’m a humanist. And this means that I may not know the intricacies of how some computer systems work. But it also means that I can spot a bad metaphor when I see one. And having said that, I’m hereby calling for a moratorium on all discussions of “cloud computing.”

If you want to discuss what the above-linked Wikipedia article describes as “a style of computing in which dynamically scalable and often virtualized resources are provided as a service over the Internet,” there’s a term that’s already existed for quite some time: “remote storage and computing.”

The problem with “cloud computing” is that there’s no “cloud” there.

Clouds are masses of water vapor (and/or ice crystals) in the air. The vapor or ice begins to condense around certain “seeds,” or condensation nuclei, like airborne dust or salt.

In other words, the “stuff” of the cloud coalesce around an element that attracts them and brings together. But it’s still vapor. It’s still made up of individual particles of water.

So-called “cloud computing” is nothing of the sort. It’s entrusting your data and processes to a remote computer or set of servers. These computers are owned by a company– whether that company is Google or Those companies hold the data and the processes. They aren’t “in the cloud,” they’re in particular computers in particular places owned by particular people. This isn’t “cloud computing.” It’s just remote data services and storage.

This isn’t to say that the services we’ve been describing as “cloud computing” are a good or bad thing– I think there’s strong arguments for both. Honestly, I like owning my data locally. But I also like knowing that there’s a remote computer somewhere far off with all my important files, in case my house burns down tomorrow. There’s privacy issues, definitely, but I have more faith in the ability of some of these companies to keep my data secure than I do in my own ability to keep my networked computer completely safe. I don’t have on-site security experts. They do. I could go back and forth all day. But the main thing is, it’s a misnomer.

Part of the reason that the inaccuracy of the term bothers me is that I think the metaphor has potential. But let’s look at making something truly cloud-like.

What would truly “cloud-like” cloud computing look like? It would take data, disaggregate it, and distribute it across a number of other computers that all had a tiny piece of the data. Like a droplet of water, none of those tiny pieces of data would be the whole “cloud,” just one of the many small parts that, in toto, constitute the data cloud itself.

Distributed computing is a powerful tool– it’s what makes BitTorrent such a useful file sharing protocol. As computers and networks become faster and more powerful, more opportunities to follow this model of disaggregation and reaggregation of more (and more complex) data.

This new “true cloud” computing would have some obvious drawbacks. Anyone who uses torrents will tell you that it’s not the quickest way to move data. There would definitely be security concerns as well. But not all of your data needs be that secure. And there’s at least the possibility that systems of encryption could ensure that the data in any given “droplet” of data were essentially useless to anyone who didn’t have access to all the rest of it. And the system would have to incorporate massive redundancies, as well– so that one guy in Iceland shutting his computer off or losing power wouldn’t suddenly result in your own inability to access important data.

But for some functions, such a system would work far better than the current model. One example: Twitter. Twitter is almost as famous for the fail whale as it is for its sudden and striking ubiquity. The company’s servers go down, and there is no Twitter until they go back up.

A “true cloud” Twitter could adapt to failure, could reroute you via various series of networks to your and your friend’s tweets, as long as a certain critical mass of users were online at any given time. It could scale quite well. I’ve been saying this to friends for a bit now– what Twitter needs is an open-source, distributed alternative. The fact that the service has, from the get-go, worked on an API model means that there could even be a place for Twitter, the company, within the greater cloud of Twitter, the distributed microblogging protocol.

Again, I’m not a computer scientist or a programmer. I’m just a humanist who’s interested in looking at how evolving digital media shape our lives. But I think there’s the seed of a good idea in the phrase “cloud computing.”

So first things first– let’s stop using the term to describe something that isn’t cloud-like at all.


Asus Eee PC 901 Review

I know there’s already about a million Eee PC reviews out there, but several of my Facebook and Twitter friends have asked me to take a minute to talk about my newest toy, an Asus Eee PC 901… So for the first time ever, I can claim to be writing a post “by popular demand.”

It occurred to me today that it might be almost predictable that I would like the Eee PC– it’s basically the ukulele of laptops. It’s small, portable, fun, and when you pull one out in front of people, their responses are usually either astonishment or amusement. It’s just so tiny! Some images to try to give a sense of scale:

Asus eee 901This is my Eee atop my 17″ Toshiba laptop, along with a pack of Bicycle playing cards. As you can tell, my Toshiba could eat my Eee. This is, of course, the entire point of the Eee. Weighing less than than two and a half pounds and only nine inches wide, the thing is extremely portable. It’s about the size of a leather-bound day planner.

Asus eee 901While its small size is the chief selling point of the Eee PC, it’s also one of its drawbacks. I’ve seen many reviews that say the keyboard is simply too small for an adult male. There’s some truth to this, but I take issue at the same time. I have to take this back to the ukulele comparison, here. It’s a reoccurring issue for beginners on ukuleles– the belief that having large fingers will make it impossible to play a small soprano uke. However, this just isn’t true. Once your fingers learn where to go, you can play the smaller uke. If a man the size of Israel Kamakawiwo’ole can play the ukulele, size is no excuse.

That said, I wouldn’t chose my Eee as my computer of choice for writing a seminar paper or writing a CSS style sheet from scratch. The smaller size makes touch-typing much more difficult, especially if you’re going to be (as I assume most users will) switching back and forth between it and regular-sized keyboards. The smaller keys do mean a few more slips of the fingers, and the compressed size also means making some sacrifices or compromises. The biggest example of this is the right shift key, which is the same size as (and directly to the left of) the up arrow– and this can create some very inconvenient typos.

Overall, though, I’m very happy with the purchase. This computer fits my needs– it was under five hundred dollars, it fits (with plenty of room for chords, a book or two, pens, etc.) in my man-purse, and the solid-state hard drive eases my mind about the occasional bump or thump it might get as I carry it around. It’s the perfect size to strap on my back and bike to class, to take to meetings or trips to libraries or archives. 20 gigs of memory isn’t the most, but it’s plenty for a secondary computer that you use primarily for webaps. (And the fact that it comes with an equal amount of online storage is awesome.)

Asus eee 901And it’s wicked fast. Like, seriously fast. Puts my theoretically much better main laptop to shame. In the default “easy mode” (pictured at left) it boots impossibly fast– a matter of seconds, and does it almost silently, too. The tabbed system of the easy mode is super-intuitive and simple– it looks almost like a toy or a computer that your grandmother could understand. But it’s slightly buggy, occasionally and inexplicably losing an icon. And on top of that, it doesn’t take full advantage of the KDE/Xandros Linux machine you’ve purchased. There’s not even an icon for the terminal window or Konqueror (two of the more powerful pieces of software on the thing, really…) in easy mode.

Asus eee 901I bought the Linux machine– you can purchase it with Windows XP if you’re more comfortable with that– for a reason. I’m not a huge fan of Leopard or Vista, and I knew that this means I’m going to want to start learning Linux. This is where the Advanced Desktop Mode (which you can see to the right) comes in.

At first I was confused why the folks at Asus didn’t just include the full desktop mode on the computer as a default– anyone who’s going to be buying a Linux-powered mini web machine like this is going to want to take full geeky advantage of it. But once I worked up the nerve to go under the hood, I found that it wasn’t that hard to install (although there is a little extra script editing for the 900 series due to a conflict that I don’t really understand as a Linux newbie). And the process of installing and activating the desktop got me (as an absolute beginner) familiar with some of the more important programs– the terminal window, Synaptic, and Kate. I feel more empowered and encouraged to look into expanding and altering the thing now that I understand how to get around, and have seen some basic commands in action.

Next step: upgrading to Openoffice 3, installing XAMP, and finding a good compatible Twitter client.

Overall, for the price, this thing can’t be matched. I’ve played around with the MacBook Air, and while it’s got more memory and power, it felt like it was going to snap in my hands. Plus, it costs three or four times as much and takes up more room in a bag. I’d recommend it to anyone who wants a small, portable laptop. If you’re like me, and do ninety percent of your work online, anyway, the relatively small memory shouldn’t be a problem. The battery life isn’t the stuff of dreams, but it’s probably the longest of any laptop I’ve had. You’re not going to write your dissertation or your novel on this thing, but I imagine it’d be a lifesaver on research trips or conferences.