The term cloud computing seems confusing and open-ended. Many IT industry leaders as well as educational specialists that I work with claim that cloud computing is “the next big thing” so I decided to find out what it is, and through this, I came up with some questions to consider in realm of education.

According to Wikipedia, cloud computing can be compared to our supply of electricity, telephone, or cable television services, in that we use these services without having to understand how they are provided. We access them through a simplified view called an abstraction, without the details of the “backend”. These services are said to be housed “in the cloud” (para. 1).

To give you an idea of how confusing and wide-open this term is, check out the video below titled, What is Cloud Computing by joyent, that highlights the perspectives of multiple IT industry leaders as they try to define cloud computing:

For a very simple intro to the term, also view CommonCraft’s Cloud Computing in Plain English video and read 5 Examples of Cloud Computing by polrid.

In cloud-based computing, users can share services via any of the following layers (listed from the user to widest base):

  • Client: Hardware or software that is used to deliver services to the user.
  • Application: Centralized access to a software application and its maintenance.
  • Platform: The infrastructure that supports applications.
  • Infrastructure: The underlying systems that sustain the platforms that applications run on.
  • Servers: The hardware or software that supports the delivery of cloud services.

Some key characteristics of cloud computing are:

  • Resource efficiency: Allows users to make use of resources and infrastructure on-demand and with little cost.
  • Cost efficiency: Users can pay only for the services that they need, and only when they are needed. Furthermore, users can expand their use of resources quickly and easily and allow those who take care of their applications to deal with the technical details of expansion without having to do it themselves.
  • Device and location independence and accessibility: Users are no longer limited to one access point for services–the majority of services can be accessed online from any location or device.
  • Scalability: With on-demand, flexible services, users no longer need to plan for peak periods or down time. The system can expand or reduce its services for the load that it carries easily and quickly in response to users.
  • Security: Cloud-based services can be more secure than non-cloud-based services because many applications and users can share the cost of powerful security applications and resources. Furthermore, cloud-based services are backed up in multiple locations so users do not have to worry about damage at one access point. However, at the same time, with so many users sharing these resources, it can be difficult to enforce and monitor security throughout an entire system.

There is much debate over some aspects of the term. Some argue:

  • Just because you can access something remotely does not mean that it is “in the cloud”. Cloud computing is rooted in the way in which end users access services, rather than the services themselves. It is a whole new way for people to provide, purchase, and use services without knowing every little detail about them.
  • What exactly is being purchased and sold in a transaction between a buyer and a vendor? Who has control over each element in such a transaction? What supports and services come with these transactions? (This also brings up the issues concerning privacy, security, and maintenance of cloud-based services.)
  • With so many networks of users and providers working together, how do we decide who owns and is responsible for each part of the cloud, and how they should collaborate to support it?

Implications and questions for education:

  • We should focus on how services are offered as technology becomes more and more interconnected and complex. What should users know about it in order to use it properly and efficiently? What are the characteristics of an effective user interface?
  • With more services and applications available to students and their parents, how should we monitor and support access? What and how should students, parents, and schools share access to information and applications?
  • If school is to be extended into a true 24/7 institution where access is available for any one at any time, then how should applications be shared between educational institutions and students? How can these applications be supported and who should pay for them?
  • How can we select the most efficient, cost-effective, flexible, and reliable cloud-based networks for productivity, research, creativity, and socialization? What characteristics should we consider for educational institutions?

Even in its infancy, cloud computing is having a huge impact on the future of IT resources and infrastructure. This is incredibly important for the future of education and the workplace. What are your thoughts on this? How are you and your students planning for the changes ahead?

(Image: i made you…,  by tinney. 2006. Available under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License.)

Cloud Computing: What Does It Mean?

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