The sky's the limit

"Cloud computing" is on course to revolutionise the internet

"The cloud, IMHO, is the future, whether you grok it now or not." This was the 73rd comment left under a post on Techcrunch - Silicon Valley's favourite tech blog - last month. It is not the kind of hipster geek enthusiasm you hear every day. But then it's not every day Google launches a project as hyped as the Google App Engine.

I remember very well when I first saw the internet represented as a cloud in a design drawing - it's one of those things that's so perfect it makes you smile. Beyond being faintly celestial, the internet as cloud metaphor is compelling for two reasons. First it has a "here be dragons" feel: I often get laughed at for adding a flash of lightning to my diagrams to represent the viruses, crackers and other ne'er-do-wells just waiting to take advantage of any ill-defended system that ventures online. Second it captures the "devil may care" sense that the details of what's out there in the cloud aren't really important to the design of any specific system.

But Techcrunch's hip 73rd commenter wasn't talking just about the internet. In (His) Humble Opinion ("IMHO"), the aspect of the future that he had "grokked" (understood) was cloud computing. Cloud computing lets software developers deploy their systems from "the cloud", by taking advantage of the offer of significant server capacities from major tech firms. Amazon led the way with its Significant Storage Service (S3) and Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) services, both launched in Europe last year. And now Google, with its App Engine, has followed suit.

Such services offer all the benefits of the "devil may care" cloud without the "here be dragons" bit. Between them, Amazon and Google run millions of web servers. Each of these servers needs an operating system and software to make the machine act like a web server, as well as other stuff like database software and diagnostic tools. The set-up is pretty standard, but maintaining it yourself is a pain, so hiring it in on a pay-as-you-go basis from one of the world's two more prolific server operators makes sense. But precisely because you're outsourcing your basic infrastructure to Google or Amazon you can feel secure that the viruses and script kiddies won't get near it.

What this means is that developers can experiment with and deploy new web applications faster than ever before. As Stephen Baker wrote, in a gushing article for Business Week late last year: "At the most basic level, it's the computing equivalent of the evolution in electricity a century ago when farms and businesses shut down their own generators and bought power instead from efficient industrial utilities."

Of course, "the cloud" could turn out to be simply vapour - but if it does take off, these two tech giants will be one step closer to synonymy with the internet itself.

Becky Hogge is a writer and technologist. She was formerly the technology director of award-winning current affairs website, and Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, a grassroots digital civil liberties organisation.

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, High-street robbery