Cloud computing is the latest technology buzzword, eclipsing even the overused “Web 2.0.” There are dozens of commercials from big companies such as IBM and Microsoft, and even more vendors you’ve never heard of, all peddling cloud services. So what is cloud computing?
Believe it or not, you already know what cloud computing is. If you use any web site that stores files, documents or email for you, then you are an end user of the cloud. In layman’s terms, cloud computing is the use of someone else’s servers and hard drives to store your data, allowing you to access that data over the internet. Yahoo, Gmail, and Hotmail email are cloud services. So are Flickr and Facebook. If you are one of our Metro Brokers agents, we provide you email via the cloud.
What’s the big deal?
You might think that Gmail and Flickr are nothing special, and the technology is actually pretty old. Why is cloud computing a big deal right now? There are two basic reasons for its popularity: you pay only for what you use, and you don’t have to have the technical expertise to implement the technology by yourself.
Cloud computing is naturally compared to a power grid. You do not have to understand how a power company generates electricity in order to flip on your light switch at the house. You also only pay for the actual kilowatts you consume.
When you buy a $1,000 laptop today, it has a really big hard drive and lots of processing power. More than you can use, really. Imagine if you only paid for the actual processor usage when you used it. Or you only paid for hard drive storage as you fill it up with Word documents.
Now imagine someone else lets you use their computer, and it is always the latest model processor, with the latest graphics and memory upgrades. You only pay for the processing power and storage you use. You don’t ever have to learn the difference between a Quad Core and an i7 processor, or if a solid state disk drive is better than a platter drive. Someone takes care of that for you. You just use Word, Excel and Firefox.
That $1,000 laptop might end up only costing you about $15 a month and it would never get old or need to be replaced. Now that’s something to get excited about, and that’s what cloud computing is attempting to do.
What cloud services are available today?
There are many types of cloud services, but the top four you will likely want to use immediately are email, storage, backup, and productivity apps.
When email moved from a client-server model (think Microsoft Outlook in a corporate environment) to webmail (think Hotmail), it became a cloud service. Today, email has been commoditized to the extent it is nearly completely free to end users. You only pay if you are a large company or don’t want to view advertisements while you check your inbox. The big three cloud email services are currently Gmail, Hotmail and Yahoo. You can also get webmail from your internet provider, such as AT&T or Comcast.
Some services now allow you to store your documents in the cloud. These documents are available whenever you have an internet connection, and from multiple computers and devices. I will cover this topic in depth in a future blog post. Some leading providers of cloud storage are Dropbox, Microsoft SkyDrive, Box.Net, Amazon Cloud Drive, and Egnyte.
Data backup has been the bane of end user computing for ages. What happens when that hard drive fails, or your computer blows up, or you accidentally delete your QuickBooks file? You better hope you have a backup, the documents you are missing are actually in the backup, and the backup was run recently. Several companies perform this service for you, storing your backup data in the cloud. The big competitors in this space are Mozy, Carbonite and SugarSync. I will cover this topic in a future post as well.
Cloud productivity applications
Ever heard of Google Docs? Google has written word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation applications that run completely in your browser. Microsoft also got into the game and opened up Word, Excel and PowerPoint for free via Office Web Apps. They are both definitely worth looking into as a Microsoft Office desktop installation replacement.
Other cloud services
There are other cloud services that are interesting, but may be outside the scope of a typical real estate agent’s business. Here are some examples:
Google has released an operating system that runs almost completely on the internet. It’s called Google Chromium OS, and is available today on cheap computers called Chromebooks. It runs only an internet browser on the local computer, and everything else on Google’s servers, including all the installed programs and stored files. As you can imagine, this requires 100% uptime of your internet connection.
Amazon provides something called the Elastic Compute Cloud (or EC2), which allows IT departments to move their servers into Amazon’s cloud. As an IT person, I can tell you this is a very attractive option for many different aspects of corporate technology infrastructure. (Metro Brokers will be using Amazon services in the future. We’ll announce more when we get closer to a product release.)
Apple is releasing iCloud with the next version of iOS (the operating system on iPods, iPhones, and iPads). iCloud will store a copy of your music, photos, videos and apps from your iOS device on their servers. What a great backup plan for iPhone and iPod consumers.
So that’s what the Cloud looks like!
There are too many other cloud services available to mention here, but hopefully now you can recognize cloud services when you see them, and understand their value to your business.
Coverage of cloud computing for real estate agents will continue in several upcoming blog posts. Stay tuned for more!