Gazing Into The Cloud, From Storage to Servers

May 4, 2012
Originally published on May 4, 2012 3:39 pm
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One of the newer buzzwords coming out - buzz phrase, actually, has to do with the working in the cloud. Do you work in the cloud? Do you ever hear about it? You store your files, your movies, your music, maybe your office documents, even your word processor can be up there in the cloud. What's this all about? Do you want to get involved? Are you wondering whether you should do that? That's what we're going to be talking about for the rest of the hour with two folks who write about technology and think about how it works.

Tony Bradley is a freelance technology writer and a columnist for PCWorld. He wrote a series of articles on "30 Days with the Cloud." He joins us from Houston. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

TONY BRADLEY: Thank you. It's an honor.

FLATOW: You're welcome. And Nicholas Carr is author of several books, including the recent Pulitzer Prize nominee "The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains." And he's at KGNU studios in Boulder. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.


FLATOW: Let me begin with you. Tony, in the past week or two, there've been a lot of cloud storage announcements from Google, from Microsoft. Give us an idea of the different options that are open to us.

BRADLEY: Well, you already had Dropbox and Box and SugarSync. There's Ubuntu One. Amazon has a cloud. Google Drive has been a rumor for years, and Google finally actually announced that. And SkyDrive is Microsoft's offering, which they announced sort of a change in that product and broadened the number of platforms and places it works on. So there are a lot to choose from. There are a lot of similarities between them, and there are, you know, key differences as well.

FLATOW: And what do the services do in general? Are they just storage places for your stuff on the Internet?

BRADLEY: Yes. I mean, you know, all of those services are basically just online hard drive storage, you know, online storage for your files out there on the Internet. SkyDrive and Google Drive are sort of unique among them in that Google has Google Docs, a productivity suite, which has a word processor and a spreadsheet and, you know, those types of things, that's available online. And Microsoft has a Web version of the Microsoft Office application, also, that are sort of linked into those cloud things so you can not only store the files but you can create files, edit the files and work with the files through those services as well.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And, Nick Carr, this idea of doing stuff from the cloud isn't really new. Doesn't it go way back to original computing days?

CARR: It does. I mean, I think you can draw a straight line all the way back to the '60s when we had something called timesharing on mainframes. And back then, computing was very, very expensive, so a lot of companies and even individuals couldn't afford to buy their own mainframe. And what they'd do, essentially, is they'd rent space on somebody else's mainframe and then tie in from a terminal over the phone lines and do their computing remotely. In some ways, cloud computing is a return to that model.

Of course, it's very different now because we can - the capacity of the data communications network, which is where we transfer all the data back and forth, is much, much greater and computers are much more powerful. So you can do all sorts of things today, with cloud computing, that were just impossible even a few years ago.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And that's where we want to get into. We want to get into all the different options that people have and the different services and the fact that even some of them, like the Google one, you can use their word processor and their spreadsheets. You don't even have to buy one. You can use theirs that they'll loan to you, I guess. And if you have a question, you would like some advice how to choose one, what - maybe you're thinking, you know, what about the privacy of all that stuff I'm putting out there, give us a call.

Our number is 1-800-989-8255. You can also tweet us, @scifri, @S-C-I-F-R-I, or get into the discussion going on on our website at and our Facebook page at facebook/scifri. We'll be back with Tony Bradley and Nick Carr. Your questions - 1-800-989-8255 - after the break. Talking about your head in the cloud. So stay with us. We'll be right back.


FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking about computing in the cloud. Ever wanted to do that? Do you do it? Maybe you have some good experiences, bad experiences. We're going to be sharing some tips for you with Tony Bradley. He's a freelance technology writer, columnist for PC magazine, and he wrote a series of articles, "30 Days With the Cloud."

Nicholas Carr, author of several books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning - nominated book "The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains." 1-800-989-8255. Tony, did you find it a good experience there for "30 Days In the Cloud?"

BRADLEY: Well, yes and no. I mean, there are drawbacks. I mean, if you're relying on your data on any - out there in the cloud and the Internet and you're relying on productivity applications that are on the Internet, you have to have a solid connection. So, you know, that doesn't work very well if you're, you know, driving around. Or, you know, if you're Internet goes down, you're kind of dead in the water. So there are downsides.

But there are also significant upsides because, you know, I actually, during the course of that period, ran into a situation where I didn't have - my primary computer actually crashed and had a problem, and I was able to simply go online. And I, you know, my data was already there. I had access to the productivity application, and I could just pick up where I left off and keep on working. So there was, you know, pros and cons.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Nick Carr, it's - is it only the big companies that are moving to this or small companies realizing?

CARR: It's - actually, big companies have been fairly slow, and one reason is that they have a huge amount of money invested in their own computer systems and their own applications, and so it takes them time to make the switch. And they're also obviously very interested - very concerned about data security and privacy for legal reasons as well as business reasons. And so it's been - I would say it's been individuals and small companies who have moved to the cloud first because it - they don't have a lot of money invested in their own data centers and applications, and so the cloud allows them to get very sophisticated Software applications and computer services for very cheap. And in fact, you know, most of us who have a computer or an iPad or an iPhone and an Internet connection have been using cloud computing for quite a long time. If you used to have an AOL Mail account or a Hotmail account or a Yahoo Mail account, that was all essentially cloud computing. The application, the email application was running on those companies' servers, and your data was stored on those companies' servers and you'd tap into it.

And even, you know, services like Facebook are really unthinkable without cloud computing, because it's all about sharing an application and data that's stored centrally, rather than on your own machine. So even though the buzzword is kind of new and fashionable, the basic idea has been around, and we've been using it for a long time now.

FLATOW: What if you're fearful? And I'll ask both of you this question. What if you're fearful of putting your documents in the cloud because someone's going to look at them, someone in another company that maybe runs that cloud or someone who might be able to hack into it? Is that a legitimate fear?

BRADLEY: I would - I think it's a legitimate fear. I mean, it certainly is a possibility. And there was a situation that, you know, made the news last year where Dropbox, which is arguably the most popular of the cloud storage and syncing services among consumers, is encrypting data and - but they're controlling the encryption keys, and so it is encrypted. It's protected from other people seeing it, but Dropbox can still see it if they want to. Now, they say they won't, and you have to sort of take them at their word on that. But, you know, the reality is whoever controls the encryption keys can still decrypt and look at the data.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

BRADLEY: If you really want your stuff - your files and information that you store in the cloud to be secure from other people seeing it, you should encrypt it before you upload it. It should be, you know, you should control the encryption keys.

FLATOW: Interesting. What about companies that want to look at your data so they can send you an ad based on what they see that you're storing?

CARR: Yeah, that's - I mean, one of the reasons that cloud computing is popular with individuals is because we can get a lot of these services for free. You can get Google Apps or Gmail or Facebook, and you don't have to pay anything. But what you do in return is you give these companies your data and they use it. They scan it and use it to feed you advertisements that are personalized. So I think people should be aware of that tradeoff that a lot of this data - even beyond the security issues, there are privacy issues. You know, do you - what data do you want to have companies scan and look at and tie advertisements to, and what are you nervous about? And I don't think users of these services always think that carefully about what they're doing when they upload information, photos and so forth. But it, you know, for all the good things we get from cloud computing, lots of free services, lots of interesting ways to share our ideas or share our photos, there are also some risks, and people should be aware of them.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let's go to Carrie(ph) in Marion, Illinois. Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE: Hello. And it's Indiana, Marion, Indiana.

FLATOW: I'm sorry.


CARRIE: That's OK.

FLATOW: It's not Gary. It's Marion. And I'm going into an old movie that we all know what I'm talking - never mind, but go ahead.

CARRIE: Well, I'm a school teacher. I teach high school at Marion High School, and we have used cloud computing for the last two years in my classroom. We first started using it as a storage device for different files, different things that the students might use, worksheets, and things that students can download even from home if they're absent or different files that are on there. We actually use the PowerPoint program as well. Different students - I could have four students at the same thing doing some collaborative learning, all working on the same project. And I just love using Google in my classroom.

FLATOW: It seems to be working well for him - for her, Nick. What do you think?

CARR: Yeah. One of the great advantages of cloud computing is that we can share software applications and information that used to reside just on our individual hard drives. And so, you know, the way you used to edit Microsoft Word documents, for instance, is you had to email the document back and forth to everybody you wanted to collaborate with, and you had to keep track, you know, what's the latest version, what's out of date. And it was cumbersome and often a hassle. With these cloud computing services, you have one document that exists in a company server, whether it's Microsoft or Google or whatever, and everyone who wants to collaborate on it can collaborate on that one document. So it simplifies a lot of sharing, a lot of cooperative-type efforts, and I think that's one of the big attractions for both companies and individuals.

FLATOW: Thank you, Carrie. Good luck to you.

CARRIE: Yeah. Thank you.

FLATOW: You're welcome. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let's go to Allen(ph) in Finland, South Carolina. I hope I got that right.

ALLEN: Yes, sir.

FLATOW: Hi, there. Go ahead.

ALLEN: Hi. I collect live music. And right now, I've got many, many days worth of live concerts stored in digital files. And I have a computer that's dedicated to storing these files and, obviously, it takes up a bunch of memory. Recently, I've heard about these clouds, and I was wondering if this would be a good platform for me to store these files, and if there was a certain type of cloud that would be, you know, better than the other at uploading and also accessing this data.


BRADLEY: Let me ask you this. You said - these might be your custom - like they're things that you recorded personally and not like store-bought music?

ALLEN: No. It's more of a - sort of like tape trading.


ALLEN: So like - go ahead.

BRADLEY: OK. Well, I was just going to say, I mean, in general, I mean, the cloud is a great place to store music. I mean, Google actually offers it as a service. Amazon offers it as a service. You have Apple's, you know, iCloud, that all are places that you can store the music where you can actually stream it or play it directly, you know, from the cloud. So really, no matter where you are or what device or platform you happen to be using, you have access to the music.

I would say if it's unique, then you'd still want to have a local backup. I would not take something that, you know, like, for instance, my family photos. I have them in the cloud, but I also have them locally because I don't, you know, I don't trust clouds that much. I'm not going to put, you know, things that are irreplaceable just in the cloud.

ALLEN: Right.

BRADLEY: And then, you know, when it comes to actual, you know, like music that you're buying, some of the cloud sources actually have advantages over that. For instance, Amazon will give you five gigabytes of cloud storage, but music files that you purchase from Amazon don't count against that capacity. So you can basically have unlimited music storage as long as you buy the music from Amazon.

And iTunes has iTunes Match, which I use. I mean, I've got 50 or 60 gigabytes of music, and I upload it. I went through the exercise of uploading it to Google Music and that's fine, but it took a long time to upload that many gigabytes of data. With iTunes Match, Apple just scans the drive - scans your drive, figures out what music you have and just automatically makes it available in the cloud. You're not actually uploading it because they already have it.

FLATOW: Does that answer your question?

ALLEN: Yeah. That's actually really great. I appreciate it.

FLATOW: All right. Thanks for calling. What if somebody is shopping around, how do they - what's the best way to shop around for a cloud storage service for them - that people are now getting - hearing about it? Tony and Nick.

CARR: Well, there - as Tony said, there are...

BRADLEY: Go ahead, Nick.

CARR: ...there are a proliferation of options. And you really have to - and they're at - usually most of these companies, whether it's Amazon or Apple or Google, will - or Microsoft will give you a certain amount of storage - or Dropbox - will give you a certain amount of storage capacity, usually a couple of gigabytes for free. And then if you want more, you have to - you pay a monthly or an annual fee. So one way - one thing to do is just go online and check out the different offerings. And with Google Drive coming out, there's been - there's actually been a lot of articles that compare these services, and check out what you need, and how much you might have to pay if you want more space. And it's actually fairly straightforward.

FLATOW: Are we going to see a trend where they are going to offer you the app itself and the storage? And so, you know, with Google Apps or Microsoft or - Google even had a line of devices called Chromebooks, where pretty much every application was cloud-based. Is this where the world is heading, do you think?

BRADLEY: Well, I think that the mobile devices in general have sort of brought cloud computing to a head, where, you know, my - I have my iPhone, I have my iPad. There's only so much storage space on those devices. And now, you have this trend towards smaller and smaller laptops with the Ultrabook. They're using smaller hard drives, the SSD drives. So my old laptop had a 750 gigabyte hard drive in it, but my new one only has 128 gigabytes. So I - I'm almost forced to use the cloud as an extension of my local storage because there isn't enough room on my device.

FLATOW: Yeah. Is it possible to read the tea leaves on any of this where this is headed? Where the - what the ultimate cloud is going to be or...

CARR: I think it's - I think there are a number of things going on. Most of us today, I think, are actually doing most of our computing in the cloud because anytime you go online to find data, to make use of online services, you're essentially using software and information that's stored outside of your own computer. And as Tony said, when you have a smartphone or an iPad that has limited storage capacity, it makes sense to go out there. I don't think that means that we'll move to a world where we don't do - where we have no, you know, local storage or local computing capacity.

But I think the basic trend is that more and more things will be done centrally. It's cheaper. There's less hassle. So despite the risks of security and privacy and so forth, for most people, it's just easier, and you can share stuff and it kind of makes sense.

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow and this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. And I think one of the real advantages to the cloud, at least in the way I work, is it allows me to reach the documents I need from wherever I am, right? And I could - if I'm outside, I can get my mobile apps, if I'm at my desk. They all get synched up together if you'd like them to in some of the cloud apps.

CARR: Absolutely. And more and more of us now use all sorts of different computing devices, so we have a smartphone and maybe a laptop and an iPad or a different kind of tablet and maybe even still a desktop computer and so forth. And the ability to keep all of your files in sync across all of those devices is very, very important because it becomes a nightmare if they're all different versions. And so the - pretty much the only way to do that is to use a central cloud storage area and then have that service make sure that everything is up to date and in sync across all your devices. So I think that is - assuming that we continue to have a proliferation of little computing devices, that's going to become more and more important.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Do you think we might see people having more - as you say, the best way if you want to keep prying eyes out of your devices is to encrypt it. Where will - it might get - you could hit a little flag on your app and it'll encrypt it automatically for you without having to think about it.

BRADLEY: Yeah, I mean, well, I think that, you know, like Dropbox, you know, is already is encrypting. I mean, it's - and some of the other services are as well. You know, encryption is a tough thing, I think, on the consumer side. It's confusing enough to throw a lot of people off. If you lose the encryption keys, nobody is going to get that data back for you. You know, so it's a tough thing, but, you know, there is something to be said for Dropbox controlling the encryption keys. You just need to be aware of where the line is and what the risk is you are taking.

FLATOW: Yeah. Nick, you make the analogy to the development of electric generation and distribution systems are moving to consolidate services, and it's happening here now.

CARR: I think so. I think one way to think about cloud computing is to think back 100 years ago to what happened to electricity generation. The original model, the kind of Thomas Edison direct current model was that everybody built their own generator inside their apartment house or inside their factory and generated their own power. What happened then is we had George Westinghouse and others pioneer alternating current, which suddenly could be transmitted across long distances.

And you had a replacement of all these individual generators with the utility system. And so instead of running our own generator, we just plugged into the electric grid. And in many ways, that's what cloud computing is like. It used to be we all - if you were a company, you ran your own data center, if you were an individual, you had your own hard drive. Now, you plug in to what is an analogy to the electric grid, which is the Internet, the computing grid.

FLATOW: But we still have our backup generators during a storm, and I think we're going to still want those hard drives or those thumb drives at home. I want to thank you both for taking time to be with us today. Tony Bradley, freelance technology writer and columnist for PC Magazine. Nicholas Carr, who - PC World, I'm sorry. Nicholas Carr, who is author of "The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains." Thank you, gentlemen, for illuminating us today and have a good weekend.

CARR: Thank you.

BRADLEY: Thank you.

FLATOW: That's about all the time we have for today. If you missed any part of our programs, you can go to - open the cloud and download it on iTunes, subscribe to our podcasts, audio and video. Take SCIENCE FRIDAY along with you on iPhone and Android apps, and all week, we'll be tweeting, @scifri. Have a great weekend. We'll see you next week. I'm Ira Flatow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.