Cloud computing: a brief look at online applications

We recently looked at Web 2.0, the new interactive web, and the tremendous opportunity for third sector organisations to increase their effectiveness and impact using tools like blogs, podcasts, wikis and social networking frameworks.

One of the most powerful developments in the Web 2.0 arena is what are called ‘rich internet applications’, full replacements for software applications that run over the internet and in your browser, rather than from your PC or laptop. These web apps are often referred to under the rubric of ‘cloud computing’, a term derived from technology diagrams that typically illustrate the internet using a cloud.

Cloud Computing

Leading the ‘cloud computing’ charge are internet-centric companies like Google, whose CEO, Eric Schmidt, is quick to tout the benefits of shifting to online applications: they are available anywhere you have internet access, and as long as you have a browser, he says, “it doesn’t matter whether you have a PC or a Mac or a mobile phone or a BlackBerry or what have you – or new devices still to be developed – you can get access to the cloud.”

Online applications are usually inexpensive and often free (supported by ads) to use. More importantly, with cloud computing you no longer have the expense or hassle of maintaining your own network servers. “It’s like having banks manage your money rather than you managing your money,” Schmidt says.

Google Apps for Domains

So what are some examples of these ‘cloud computing’ apps? There are already hundreds if not thousands of very usable online software applications, but sticking with Google for a moment, its Google Apps for Domains suite offers a whole series of applications for managing an organisation’s email, contact lists, and diaries, offering a full replacement for traditional server applications like Microsoft Exchange. In fact, it’s a better choice than Exchange, in some respects, as its built-in search (this is Google, after all) and storage (at 6GB per user and rising – Exchange tends to fall over with user mailboxes of that size) far surpass Microsoft’s application.

With Google Apps, you can use online web apps or link into the online storage through an offline email appplication like Outlook through IMAP and calendar synchronisation. Also included in Google Apps is an office software suite for creating and editing Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents, and online storage to keep them in as well as securely share them with other users.

The cost of Google Apps? Absolutely free. Or choose a professional version for just £25 per user per year that eliminates the otherwise fairly inobtrusive ads and provides a 99.9% uptime guarantee. Far from a ‘fly by night’ operation, this is a very strong offering from the world’s most valuable technology company, and if I were launching an organisation of nearly any size today, I would seriously consider using Google Apps to handle all email and groupware services.

Other Rich Internet Applications

To take another example, and demonstrating just how powerful these online applications can be, traditional software company Adobe has just launched Photoshop Express, an online version of its popular graphic design application. Photoshop Express does most everything that a casual user of image editing software would ever need, and also offers online storage and links into other Web 2.0 image sharing systems like Flickr.

Adobe now also offers Acrobat.com, hosting some very useful applications for creating and modifying PDF documents, collaborative document writing and screen sharing. It is free for basic use, or you can pay a premium for more advanced features.

In another domain, a UK-based company called Kashflow is offering an online alternative to Sage Instant Accounts or QuickBooks for a low monthly subscription. “Do I really want my finance data stored up in the ‘cloud’ somewhere?”, some will no doubt worry. But remember Schmidt’s bank analogy: the data backup and security procedures of most online application providers (the bank vault) will far exceed the security provisions in a typical local network where your data would otherwise be stored (the proverbial mattress).

Indeed, as one of the benefits of online applications is that you don’t need to worry about backing up your data, the secure data centres of Google, Adobe and other providers doing all the hard work for you, it is no surprise to discover that another useful application of ‘cloud computing’ is online backup services. Avec Solutions has just launched one in partnership with the industry leader, Mozy, whereby all data from a network server can be securely and constantly backed up to an offsite location, eliminating the need to grapple with inconvenient and problematic tape backup systems.

Of course, the traditional server-based network and idea of running software locally are not disappearing overnight. But a new age of powerful applications that are available to us wherever we go, whether we are using PCs, laptops, handheld computers or other internet devices is dawning, and it would be worthwhile to consider ‘cloud computing’ in your organisation’s ever-evolving IT strategy.