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Cloud Computing – Ready to Burst?

Craig Norris is a frequent contributor to TV Technology.

I’m converted. I want to use cloud computing for nearly all my computing needs. It makes so much more sense than owning one’s own IT infrastructure of servers and networking and security and air-conditioning and fire suppression and IT experts.

Even a small business like my photography studio demands an inordinate amount of my time to maintain the IT infrastructure of three Windows workstations, one Mac Mini, one file server, one Linux music centre, two laptops, and one broadband wireless router. Especially when something goes seriously wrong with a Windows workstation, it can tie me up for three days to replace a system hard disk, reinstall Windows, reinstall all the applications, restore all the backed up user data, and most painfully, download all the updates.

My installation CD for most of the applications is typically two to three years out of date, and it can easily tie up a whole day to download the updates to all the larger applications like Adobe Photoshop, DXO Optics Pro, and Vegas Pro, and the dozens of other smaller applications I use.

I’m lucky that I can save money by doing all the above myself, thanks to my background. Those people without a technical background have no choice but to submit the computer to pay a repair centre, and then wait. But time is money, and I can’t avoid spending the time.

Cloud computing means we can use a low cost relatively “dumb” terminal, or “ thin client ” low maintenance workstation, but enjoy huge amounts of storage and computing power at the host end. And since we don’t know or care where the host computer is located, we deem it to be ‘cloud computing’ because it is often drawn in a diagram as a fluffy cloud, much like public telephone and data networks have traditionally been depicted in diagrams.

But some things don’t easily lend themselves to functioning in the cloud. Photoshop, for example, and Vegas Pro involve such huge amounts of data being crunched in a concurrent manner, that the workstation for those jobs needs and fully utilises a local super fast SSD system drive and 12GB of RAM and a quad core 64 bit CPU accessing attached RAID storage. Despite the high specs, it’s still too slow for my liking on some jobs. I can’t yet imagine all of my rich media data being “in the cloud” while under live processing, because the bandwidth required just isn’t high enough or reliable enough to make it practical – yet.

But I can easily imagine the finished project data to be in the cloud. In fact, I need it to be. I want to be able to access that data from any computer, wherever I am. For example, this article is being written over a period of several days while I move from location to location on my daily routines.

Ordinarily, I’d have to bring my laptop with me to every location so I can keep working on this text. I need my own copy of Microsoft Office on my laptop so I can type the text and create a spreadsheet for a table of numbers or comparison chart, or to create some slides for a presentation for my client.

But I’ve given that up. I’m divorcing Microsoft (sorry Bill). I’m writing this article from whatever computer is handy. Even a coin-operated Linux PC in the lobby of a cheap hotel will do. I’m not using any Microsoft Office products for this. In fact, I don’t even need any kind of portable storage device to carry my text or other files around. There’s a huge freedom in being un-tethered from a particular computer, and in being released from the obligation to buy my own copy of application software like Microsoft Office for every computer that I own.

I own eight computers. The Microsoft Office end user license agreement only authorises me to install Office on two of those computers. So I either paid a lot of money for multiple copies of every Microsoft application, or I limited the usefulness of most of my computers by not having application software on them. Or I used multiple copies of free applications like Open Office, and then suffered the tedium of keeping them all updated.

Almost every time I sat down at any of my eight computers, I had to go through the motions of downloading an update to one piece of software or another. Acrobat, QuickTime, Windows, Flash, Office, Photoshop, DXO, Vegas, Explorer, Chrome – the list goes on. Flash, Acrobat and QuickTime all seem to be frequently suggesting that an update should be downloaded.

Cloud computing is a welcome concept to me for the freedom it offers from all these tiresome maintenance tasks. A small light and simple workstation sounds very desirable. Having my data stored in the cloud is a godsend, so I don’t need to worry about losing my portable hard disk drive or USB Flash memory device.

I’m now using Google Docs. I log in through any browser to iGoogle, which then brings up my personally laid out home page, with my preferred news headlines, exchange rate info, weather reports, and links along the top of the page to my calendar, my documents, my email, and lots of other useful stuff that exists in ‘the cloud’ on Google’s servers. Thank you, Google. You’ve given me back my freedom.

Small data like text files and spreadsheets and presentation slides live happily and reliably in the cloud. If there’s a hard disk crash, it’s Google’s problem, not mine. If the server’s operating system needs an upgrade, it’s Google’s problem, not mine.

The only potential risk I face now is related to connectivity. Without an Internet connection, my whole new way of working grinds to a sudden halt. So I have backups. If my wired broadband connection fails, I have two different 3G mobile phone services to which I can resort.

My mobile phones have Internet access utilities that can allow whatever computer I’m using to share the phone’s 3G Internet access over a USB cable between the phone and the computer. I tried using a Bluetooth connection between the phones and the computers, but it proved to be unreliable, so I’ve given up on that idea for now. Don’t sell your shares in the copper mine yet. Bluetooth still has a long way to go before it can compete with copper wire.

To prove my point about the backup connectivity, I just yanked the gigabit Ethernet connection from my laptop and plugged my mobile phone into a USB port. Within 30 seconds I was back online, and this text document hasn’t suffered one bit.

If cloud computing can work so well for this author’s humble little business, could it work for larger enterprises? According to Amazon, the answer is, “it already is working for rich media enterprises.”

Amazon is one of the pioneers of cloud computing services. I first heard about its cloud computing activities during the conference at BroadcastAsia in Singapore in June, 2010. An Amazon manager presented a paper in which several interesting and relevant case studies acted as clear evidence for the viability of cloud computing in the rich media sphere. I’ve been making a study of it ever since.

I don’t use any Amazon services yet. I’m using Google Docs, various webmail services, and various web site hosting companies. I use DropBox as an FTP server and as a way of synchronising important documents and files on all of my computers in the studio and at home. I use Picasa as a way of sharing photos and videos.

The success of YouTube is further proof that rich media can be stored and viewed entirely online, in ‘the cloud’. The next step is to store and manage the high resolution broadcast media files in externally hosted servers. Something like the “Amazon S3” service is a compelling alternative to having and maintaining one’s own IT servers.

This subject is now echoing around the hallways and boardrooms of every major broadcaster because a Hollywood deadline looms. The studios are saying to broadcasters: “get ready to receive your master copies of movies and TV shows as files, because we’re going to start charging you a premium if you keep asking for videotapes”.

For some large broadcasters , a new infrastructure to support the average arrival of up to a terabyte or more of files every day will be required. It isn’t trivial. It isn’t a matter of “Let’s just download it over the Internet”. It’s much more than that. And without cloud computing services, it might be near impossible, or so expensive that we’ll be begging for the continued delivery of videotapes.