RealTime IT News

Waking Up to the Clouds

Google Cloud panelists
(L-R) John Horrigan, Dan Burton, Mike Nelson, Ari Schwartz

WASHINGTON -- Most Internet users know what Webmail is. Many are familiar with YouTube, or at least the concept of watching videos online. But how many of them understand that they those applications live in the clouds?

A new study from the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that the 69 percent of Internet users who tap into cloud-based applications generally don't have much of an understanding of how those applications are actually provided to them.

They love the convenience and flexibility of being able to access the same content from any computer, but they have reservations about how their data is being used.

"The tradeoffs that people engage in worry them, and sometimes can be very subtle," said John Horrigan, associate director of the Pew Internet Project and author of the report. "People use it more than they understand it."

Horrigan presented Pew's latest research at a policy talk here at Google's Washington D.C. headquarters. The presenters agreed that, outside of tech circles, the term "cloud computing" is largely unknown. But that's likely to change as lawmakers and regulators begin to ponder the implications that a new model of computing could have on privacy, security and a host of other areas in which government is taking an increasing interest.

"I think cloud computing is the hot topic over the next year in Washington," said Dan Burton, senior vice president of global public policy for Saleforce.com (NYSE: CRM), one of the companies at the forefront of the cloud revolution.

Much of the discussion of cloud computing lately has surrounded a model like Amazon's Web Services business, where small companies pay a monthly fee for computing power and storage capacity from Amazon's datacenters.

By Pew's definition, that model is only one form of cloud computing, and is more precisely termed "utility computing," where computing power is purchased from a centralized provider, like gas or electricity.

Pew defines cloud computing as a broad architecture where data is remotely stored and accessible to anyone who can tap into the grid. Looking at it in historical terms, the presenters described the cloud model as the next major computing paradigm, succeeding the client-server model, which had in turn largely supplanted the mainframe. But these are still early days.

"Today we are with the cloud about where we were in 1993 with the Web," said Mike Nelson, visiting professor of communication, culture and technology at Georgetown University. "The basic technology is there, the standards are being worked out, we have a vague idea of how important it is; we don't really have any clue as to how it will be used.

"But those of us who are following this closely know that it is going to change almost everything we do with computing," he added.

One of those changes involves the developer community, where large companies provide a platform and a hosted environment for Web applications. Through its Web Services division, Amazon provides such a developer platform, as does Google's with its App Engine, and Salesforce with Force.com.

On the social side, Facebook has staked its own place in the cloud with its platform, where developers around the world have created hugely popular applications such as Scrabulous and iLike.

For its purposes, the Pew study only looked at six of the common computing activities where data resides in the cloud: Webmail, storing photos, online applications such as Google Docs, storing videos, paying a fee to store files online and backing up a hard drive online.

But even within the consumer realm, that only scratches the surface -- Pew did not ask about other cloud-based applications such as social networking, where people create profiles that are stored at remote datacenters, or social bookmarking sites such as Delicious.

The research revealed the same fundamental conflict that can be found in the debate over privacy and online advertising: people love free services but express concern when asked about how companies are using their data.

Of the respondents who said they use at least one of the six cloud-computing activities included in the survey, 68 percent said they would be very concerned if companies analyzed the contents of their data for the purposes of targeting advertisements.

Eighty percent said would be concerned to see their photos or other content show up in a marketing campaign, and 90 percent said they would be unnerved if a company sold the contents of their files.

"Consumers expect that their information will be treated the same way in the cloud as it would be if it were stored on their home computer," said Ari Schwartz, COO and vice president of the Center for Democracy and Technology. "That's a pretty tall order."

Or, as Horrigan put it, his research found that the consumer's message to the vendor would be something like: "Let's keep the data between us."