About a year ago (specifically last February), “Cloud Computing” was a fairly new techno-buzzword. In fact, when Jori blogged about it then, we got a fair few comments asking what it was. At the time, the “cloud” was a nebulous thing true to its name; when something went into the electronic “cloud,” just where was it going and how were you supposed to get it back?

For those who don’t know: the “Cloud” is the general name for the dynamic, functional space on the internet (so on servers all over the world) where data can be stored and accessed by anyone through the web. Think of your Gmail account; your messages live online somewhere, and when you log into Gmail to get them, you go out to the web instead of the messages coming to you. The same functionality can be applied anywhere, and we see it being used more all the time. Apple’s MobileMe (formerly .Mac) essentially rents subscribers a chunk of space on Apple’s servers to post photos, host a website, send and receive email, etc. Practically, the user doesn’t really do anything she or he didn’t already; you still put in a username and password and there’s your stuff, whatever it is–the difference is that all of that stuff used to have to be on a hard drive somewhere, and now it’s in the aether, floating around between computers, easy to access but impossible to locate-and for some, this is troubling.

But not everyone sees it that way; many respected institutions including universities, government agencies, and even corporations are beginning to see Cloud Computing as a way not just to maximize investment but a way to reach more people. In September of this year, the White House announced a multi-billion-dollar initiative aimed at streamlining the transition of much of its data into “cloud-accessible” form. Even NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration) uses the Cloud, and in a way that would have been impossible without the architecture built by Google, IBM, Apple and others; Satellite data from multiple government agencies are aggregated together in “constellations”, or mini-clouds, so that anyone behind the firewall can see it all at once.

Speaking of making our jobs easier, I’d love to mention the success we’ve had at Ascend using Adobe’s Acrobat Connect, which in addition to being incredibly cool (think of a Wiki, only everyone can work on it at the same time), is incredibly useful. Ascend uses Acrobat Connect to hold online training sessions on Adobe’s own software–so now, thanks to the “Cloud” in which the class data and all the various users’ information can be temporarily housed, students in London can tune in and take a Photoshop class with students in Phoenix, which is good news, since most companies are going global faster than we can keep up.

Personally, I think the Cloud is awesome; I use MobileMe and Gmail for my email, PhotoBucket to share photos, and YouTube to express myself and get my daily dose of entertainment–but you know what? For the moment, I’m still making back-ups of it all on my external hard drive, and that sits on my desk…so I can keep an eye on it. Know what I mean?

For further reading:

White House unveils cloud computing initiative

Microsoft’s Azure