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1. The Cloud Comes Home

With every successful technology, there is a point when it goes from being novel and exotic to common and mundane. Consider the light bulb, cars, radio, TV, or the PC. When was the last time you heard someone mention all three words in the "World Wide Web" or ask, "Have you got the Internet yet?" Once the technology becomes part of our everyday social fabric, much of the early nomenclature evaporates.

We're nearing that point with cloud computing, a software service model in which applications and resources flow to users on demand from one or more remote data centers. Cloud computing is a term you normally hear associated with enterprise corporations, although much confusion still reigns among companies on how to balance public clouds with private, whether or not cloud services are truly secure, how cloud downtime should be tallied and penalized, and so on. What fewer people realize is that cloud computing also has a rising and controversial role in the consumer world.

Screen shot of Microsoft's Excel Web App.Screen shot of Microsoft's Excel Web App.

We all use cloud apps, even if we don't realize them as such. Google Search is a cloud app, but so is the cloud storage you get with apps such as Microsoft SkyDrive and Dropbox. Amazon is starting its push into consumer cloud services with its Cloud Player offerings. Microsoft how has its Office Web Apps going up against Google Apps/Docs, Zoho, and others. Netflix on-demand? That's cloud. Facebook and Twitter? Ditto. One app at a time, cloud computing is reshaping how we live. With each passing year, the number of applications that will require beefy local PCs will diminish as we increasingly transition into a "thin client" and "ubiquitous computing" world. If you play Scrabble or do Wikipedia look-ups on your smartphone, you're already there.

Many would argue that Google is at the center of today's cloud computing scene. If this is so, then that would place Google Apps product development leader Ken Norton at the middle of the front pushing cloud computing into our lives. At this nexus point in online computing, we were able to sit down with Norton and learn more about how cloud technology is evolving and transforming people's lives both today and tomorrow.

2. Talking Business

Tom's Guide: There are cloud providers, application service providers, software-as-a-service, hosted service providers, on and on. Do all of these different kinds of companies really offer the same sort of thing?

Ken Norton: The key point of differentiation for us is that applications are built from the ground up for cloud. Some of the early ASPs and even a lot of the people talking about cloud computing today are just taking software that used to run in your data center and putting it in their data center. That might give you some cost benefits, but it doesn't get you much more. At Google, our apps are built from the ground up for the Web. They're fundamentally tailored for that experience. They'll work awesome on your mobile phone or browser. They're fast. They're what you expect from having used Google Search. That allows us to innovate much more rapidly. If all you're doing is taking some software that you used to update every 18 months and move it from your location to a host's data center, you're not really gaining anything in the pace of innovation or security patches and all that convoluted stuff that goes into enterprise software.

The southern view of Google's headquarters, known as the Googleplex.The southern view of Google's headquarters, known as the Googleplex.

TG: What is the difference between public vs. private cloud architecture?

KN: There are a lot of misconceptions around that. If it's a private cloud, it's really not cloud computing. It's just outsourcing. It's taking a data center that you used to manage yourself and having someone else do that for you. Cost savings aside, you're not gaining much. A lot of times, when people ask about private clouds they're really asking about security. They're saying, "Should I trust cloud computing, or do I need to do something special to make sure it's secure?" We believe that security is actually a benefit of cloud computing, not a weakness. Here are a couple reasons why. First of all, if you look at managing enterprise software yourself with an internal IT department, these organizations are spending a ridiculous amount of time doing security patches and upgrade roll-outs. Some industry studies show that in terms of security patch deployment, it's anywhere from 60 to 90 days from when a patch becomes available to when it gets deployed inside the enterprise. A lot of CIOs and managers will tell you it's actually a lot longer than that. In that time, you're vulnerable to a new exploit. And that doesn't even count the zero-day thing. In cloud computing, like with Google, you benefit from our vast experience in security. Google Search is attacked thousands of times per day. We're able to respond to issues immediately, and that means you get the benefit of those responses immediately.

That doesn't even get into the end-user side of security. Think about a typical corporation. You have data on laptops. One out of every ten laptops will be stolen within the first 12 months of ownership. Think about the proprietary data on those machines. Thumb drives. People are using these USB drives, right? They're a great, convenient way to move data, but guess what. Two-thirds of them are lost or stolen. This is amazingly sensitive data just getting circulated all around the world, left in airports, taxi cabs, jacket pockets. With cloud computing, all of the documents are stored in the data center. All your PC is doing is running a browser. That significantly improves the security of the end point, the actual computer that's being carried around. I had to get a new laptop when my MacBook died. That used to be just this grueling experience, taking weeks and weeks to move everything over, get it all configured, reinstall apps, and whatnot. But I got a new MacBook, fired up Chrome and Firefox, logged in, and I was up and going—hadn't lost a thing.

Google Sync is one way in which users' data stays consistent across devices and makes restoring onto a new device quick and painless.Google Sync is one way in which users' data stays consistent across devices and makes restoring onto a new device quick and painless.

The third thing is because the data is stored centrally, everyone is seeing the most recent version of it, and you have control over who can access and edit it. In the case of a Google spreadsheet that five people are editing, there's only one version of that, not 100 versions living on everybody's desktop and inbox and external storage. There's one. That makes it much easier to control who has access and to revoke that access if need be. Good luck trying to do that with a local file or something on a thumb drive.

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