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Demystifying Cloud Computing: Review

This panel fit right in with HASTAC's book club discussion of Lanier's You Are Not a Gadget.  Whereas Lanier is quite skeptical of hive mind thinking and is unsatisfied with the progress of the cloud, these panelists took the opposite approach, delivering an optimistic (and realistic) viewpoint of the benefits of cloud computing.  At the start of the presentation, Steve Campbell provided an overview of cloud computing, explaining exactly what cloud computing is and how the cloud is used by corporations and individuals alike.  As described by Campbell, a simple way to think of cloud computing is a pay-per-drink system: you only pay for as much storage as you need.  If you want to drink a pint, you only pay for a pint.  Just like personal energy use, you only pay for what you need and use.  If we're on vacation, our electric bill shrinks because were not flipping on the lights or running our laptops well into the night.  Cloud computing works the same way, but instead deals with storage and server power. Rather than companies constructing large servers for their personal use, cloud computing allows businesses (and individuals, but I'll get into that shortly) to offload their server needs to the cloud.

But what is the cloud?  According to the presenters, clouds are a huge data storage centers that serve as the offsite computing power for corporations.  For individual purposes, think of Google Docs.  For instance, even though I have several copies of my dissertation stored on different flash drives, I have uploaded each revision to Google Docs just in case something damages the drives.  I have stored my dissertation in the cloud--I have used Google's storage capacity for my personal use and reduced the possibility of losing access to my files.  Similarly, companies can create mirror images of their servers or locate their entire network elsewhere by purchasing cloud space; therefore, in the event of a flood or other catastrophe, their server space will not be damaged (as it often was in the pre-cloud days). Interestingly, to avoid complications, companies often build excessively larger serverson average, only 10% of the available server power is actually used.  However, corporations can now shift their emphasis from time-consuming maintenance and upkeep of these large servers to much more efficient use company data and employee time.  Or as the third speaker Bruce Maches put it, IT departments spent 70% of the their time fixing stuff and only 30% of their time producing.  With cloud computing, those numbers are reversed, and productivity rates rise to 70%.   By offloading server needs to the cloud, companies can focus more effectively on process and outcome, and avoid questions of "how" to use and maintain their own server needs.  

Sure, cloud computing is advantageous for corporations, but what does this mean for the humanities?  Maches emphasized that cloud computing allows researchers to index vast amounts of data at rapid speeds--more quickly than ever before.  If, for instance, a researcher needed analytics of certain Twitter or YouTube trends, the cloud can provide access to and data for individual projects.  For the individual, especially for us with interests in digital humanities scholarship, cloud computing is a fruitful tool giving us access to quantified data that would otherwise be difficult to access. 

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