My 6/28/09 Missoulian column
Two weeks ago I described “cloud computing,” possibly one of the next big changes in the way people use the Internet and its resources. Working in the “cloud” has been brought about by the vast connectivity of the Internet and the desire to work away from a home or office PC, as well as being heavily promoted by the large companies who supply cloud services.
Traditionally speaking, your personal files have always been on your PC or your Mac, i.e., in your pictures and documents folders, and the programs you use are on your computer’s hard drive, too. But cloud computing puts the actual location of your files and programs on the computer servers of the Internet service, not stored in any one place and accessible to you from any PC with Internet connectivity.
Google’s Gmail is in the cloud, as are online photos sites such as Flickr, social networks such as Facebook and many other Web services you use through a Web browser. But what’s really behind cloud computing, beyond what you see on your screen and your Internet connection?
What’s in the cloud are lots and lots of computers. If there are 200 million users of Facebook, then Facebook has to provide large amounts of computing power to serve them all. If you want Google to give you results in less than a second, then Google needs hundreds of thousands of computers all over the world ready to go every millisecond of every day. All those computers are packed into what are called data centers, which are typically built near supplies of large amounts of cheap hydropower and wide connections to the backbone of the Internet.
In order to maintain a competitive advantage, Google, Yahoo and all other companies heavily investing in cloud computing don’t typically disclose the number of the data centers they have or the numbers of servers in them, or even the amounts of electricity their data centers use. Search for data centers and you’ll find many bloggers and Internet experts trying to guess which company is ahead of the game.
At sometimes half a billion dollars per data center, what do companies hope to get out of providing cloud services? Advertising revenue and money from charging for cloud services, and the biggest market share of users, too.
A personal look at data centers is in a recent New York Times Magazine.