on July 25th, 2011

As far as I am concerned, the ‘Cloud’ everyone is talking about these days, is potentially some used car operator next door to your premises offering you rental of his computer system so that he can make a quick buck. Perhaps an unfair accusation.

No matter whether you are a fitter or technical director of a multinational company you will be touched by cloud computing. With many new openings and threats arising from the movement of your computing requirements to the cloud.

What exactly is the cloud?
This is where all your computing resources are provided as a service over the Internet. And which you can demand and expect massive swings in usage (for example; you can move from computing requirements for 2 employees to 300, in short order in the twinkle of an eye). Microsoft is now offering you unlimited usage of MS Office for a few bucks a month through the cloud (as is Google for equivalent apps). And Apple allows you to store and access your tunes in the cloud. Not much software required on your computer. Unlike the (bad?) old days where your computer was the centre of the universe.

Effectively this means, that as long as you can access the Internet, you can outsource all your email / database work / Word Processing /AutoCad and indeed any software to some remote site with a server and make it some else’s responsibility. This means your computer becomes merely a stand-alone almost ‘software-less’ device, and really serves to connect you to the Internet to this remote server where all the software power is located.

I love this simpler explanation of the cloud
Vivek Kundra (the CIO of the USA government) gave this interesting analogy to the cloud:
‘There was a time when every household, town, farm or village had its own water well. Today, shared public utilities give us access to clean water by simply turning on the tap; cloud computing works in a similar fashion. Just like water from the tap in your kitchen, cloud computing services can be turned on or off quickly as needed. Like at the water company, there are dedicated professionals making sure the service provided is safe, secure and available on a 24/7 basis. When the tap isn’t on, not only are you saving water, but you aren’t paying for resources you don’t currently need’.

Why has this come to pass now?
Well; with the internet becoming so fast and indeed, quite reliable, it makes the move to outsourcing your software to another site quite feasible. And with IT types running around your business trying to keep your system running 24×7 flawlessly at considerable expense; you are probably frustrated with the quality of IT operation.

Is this move to a cloud a good thing?
Now this is the question which everyone is currently pondering. Certainly it is an attractive concept. It means no more day-to-day problems with your IT and network trying to handle the often daily massive swings in demand. You outsource the whole problem to some other ‘sucker’. Problems with cloud computing one can think about immediately are:

• Sec- urity. How can we ensure sec- urity of our data? Especially if you have sensitive data and this is located in some other country other than yours. In many cases it would be illegal to house sensitive personal data in someone else’s server.
• Access. What happens when the cloud server fails or your internet connection is lost. A veritable nightmare as you immediately cease to have ALL IT services.
• Control. You give control of your data to someone else and become captive to them (think of sudden price rises in the use of the cloud).
• Loss of Data/crashes of system. What happens when your cloud server crashes and loses all your data?

And as one colleague remarked to me recently: ‘If you saw some of these shonky operators providing Cloud resources you would be horrified at outsourcing even your bathroom cleaning requirements.

Many questions and not many obvious answers.

Advantages of cloud computing for engineering professionals
I would be the first to say – this list below are potential advantages, but depend from case to case.

• Easy  global access to your software no matter where in the world you are located
• Responsibility for your IT programs to someone else 
• Reduced overhead – fewer IT techs, servers and storage devices
• Superb software interoperability between you and your vendors and clients
• Software updates done cleanly and effectively
• Perhaps (yes !) more effective sec- urity by placing your data in the care of outstanding professionals
• No more distractions with day-to-day IT issues and staff but you focus on what you are good at – engineering.

No one can promise you that this is the way to go
Cloud computing does look like a trend that is here to stay. So definitely worth investigating. But something to examine with great care. Only you can know what is good for you. The de-vil probably is in the detail of what to put into the cloud and with whom to form a ‘cloud relationship’.

As a parting comment – What about putting your entire PLC ladderlogic program and SCADA system in the cloud?

I am sure there will be some screams of anguish at this ludicrous suggestion. And at this stage; it would be impossible and indeed, high risk when you consider PLCs require real time operation of microseconds; something the cloud will not deliver. Apart from the other issues. But…who knows what the future holds…?

Thanks to Jeremy Pollard and The Engineeringdaily.net for interesting reflections on the topic of cloud computing.

Yours in engineering learning


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