Google's Cloud Looms Large

How might expanding Google’s cloud-computing service alter the digital world?

To know how you’ll be using computers and the Internet in the coming years, it’s instructive to consider the Google employee: most of his software and data–from pictures and videos, to presentations and e-mails–reside on the Web. This makes the digital stuff that’s valuable to him equally accessible from his home computer, a public Internet café, or a Web-enabled phone. It also makes damage to a hard drive less important. Recently, Sam Schillace, the engineering director in charge of collaborate Web applications at Google, needed to reformat a defunct hard drive from a computer that he used for at least six hours a day. Reformatting, which completely erases all the data from a hard drive, would cause most people to panic, but it didn’t bother Schillace. “There was nothing on it I cared about” that wasn’t accessible on the Web, he says.

Schillace’s digital life, for the most part, exists on the Internet; he practices what is considered by many technology experts to be cloud computing. Google already lets people port some of their personal data to the Internet and use its Web-based software. Google Calendar organizes events, Picasa stores pictures, YouTube holds videos, Gmail stores e-mails, and Google Docs houses documents, spreadsheets, and presentations. But according to a Wall Street Journal story, the company is expected to do more than offer scattered puffs of cloud computing: it will launch a service next year that will let people store the contents of entire hard drives online. Google doesn’t acknowledge the existence of such a service. In an official statement, the company says, “Storage is an important component of making Web apps fit easily into consumers’ and business users’ lives … We’re always listening to our users and looking for ways to update and improve our Web applications, including storage options, but we don’t have anything to announce right now.” Even so, many people in the industry believe that Google will pull together its disparate cloud-computing offerings under a larger umbrella service, and people are eager to understand the consequences of such a project.

To be sure, Google isn’t the only company invested in online storage and cloud computing. There are other services today that offer a significant amount of space and software in the cloud. Amazon’s Simple Storage Service, for instance, offers unlimited and inexpensive online storage ($0.15 per gigabyte per month). AOL provides a service called Xdrive with a capacity of 50 gigabytes for $9.95 per month (the first five gigabytes are free). And Microsoft offers Windows Live SkyDrive, currently in beta, with a one-gigabyte free storage limit.

But Google is better positioned than most to push cloud computing into the mainstream, says Thomas Vander Wal, founder of Infocloud Solutions, a cloud-computing consultancy. First, millions of people already use Google’s online services and store data on its servers through its software. Second, Vander Wal says that the culture at Google enables his team to more easily tie together the pieces of cloud computing that today might seem a little scattered. He notes that Yahoo, Microsoft, and Apple are also sitting atop huge stacks of people’s personal information and a number of online applications, but there are barriers within each organization that could slow down the process of integrating these pieces. “It could be,” says Vander Wal, “that Google pushes the edges again where everybody else has been stuck for a while.”

One of the places where Google, in particular, could have a large impact is integrating cloud computing into mobile devices, says Vander Wal. The company recently announced Android, a platform that allows people to build software for a variety of mobile phones. The alliance could spur the creation of mobile applications geared toward cloud computing, he says. People want to seamlessly move their data between computers, the Web, and phones, Vander Wal adds. “If Google is starting to solve that piece of the problem, it could have an impact because that’s something no one’s been able to do yet.”

A unified theory of cloud computing isn’t as simple as writing software, however. There are a number of social and legal issues that need to be dealt with. Most glaringly is user privacy, says Jimmy Lin, professor of computer science at the University of Maryland. This will become especially important if Google serves ads that correspond to all personal information, as it does in Gmail. Depending on the information used to target the ads, it can make some people uncomfortable. “Different people feel differently about the creepiness factor,” says Lin. “My sense is that people are still rather uncomfortable about this.” In addition, Google’s encryption mechanisms aren’t flawless. There have been tales of people logging into Gmail and pulling up someone else’s account, he says. “Assurances aren’t enough to relieve people’s fears. All it would take is one incident to throw this all amok.”

Moreover, there are copyright ramifications to cloud computing. One of the advantages to storing data in the cloud is that it can be easily shared with other people, but sharing files such as copyrighted music and movies is generally illegal. And in some cases, says Lin, it’s unclear if simply storing information on the cloud violates copyright. For instance, the license restrictions on the data he uses for research makes it illegal to copy it onto computers outside of Maryland. “Here’s a case where the legal policy really falls behind,” he says. “It’ll all have to be rewritten.”

There’s also the conspicuous issue of constant connectivity: a repository of online data isn’t useful if there’s no Internet connection to be had, or if the signal is spotty. Google’s Schillace says that the Internet is becoming more accessible all the time, but the company is aware of today’s technical challenge of providing service to Web applications without interruption. “That’s certainly a problem,” he says, “but there are a number of ways of addressing it.” He says that Google offers downloadable software called Gears that acts as a cache for data when a person is using a Web application offline. When the person regains Internet access, Gears automatically syncs with the online application and saves the work on a server. Schillace’s team is working to integrate this sort of feature into Google Docs. Moreover, on Friday, the company confirmed its plans to bid on the 700-megahertz wireless spectrum that will be auctioned off by the Federal Communications Commission in January, potentially providing another avenue allowing people to wirelessly connect.

Microsoft is watching Google’s moves closely, and the company has its own approach that it thinks can sidestep some of the cloud-computing challenges. “It’s not an online world only,” says Brian Hall, the general manager of the Windows Live business group. “It’s always going to be a combination of [online and offline], and the solution that wins is going to be the one that does the best job with both.” Microsoft, he says, is building software that can let people keep some of their files on hard drives, and maintain that privacy, while still letting them access those files remotely. Hall adds that the amount of storage won’t be as important as the user experience. “It’s not, in the end, going to be a gigabyte-to-gigabyte competition,” he says. “That isn’t where the hearts and minds of customers will be won.”

Still, there’s a sense that Google’s version of cloud computing has the appeal of simplicity, in spite of the current challenges. Schillace says that by moving applications and data to the Internet, Google is helping make the computer disappear. “I think every generation of application sort of peels away another layer of the computer,” he says. Initially, people interacted with computers using command lines, Schillace explains, then used a graphical interface; now people can do much of their work in a Web browser, which can be on a personal computer or a small handheld device. “It’s about letting the computer get out of our way so we can work with other people and share our information.”

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