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‘Cloud Computing’ Could Transform Data Storage

July 9, 2009 at 6:25 PM EST
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Some businesses are beginning to embrace a technology called "cloud computing" -- storing data and programs on the Internet rather than on an individual company's computers. But critics worry about privacy issues. Spencer Michels reports.
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JIM LEHRER: Now, the first in a series of stories about how people are still innovating even in a time of recession. Tonight, a high-tech solution to some real-world computer problems.

NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels has our Science Unit report.

SPENCER MICHELS: At Wag Hotels, an upscale dog care facility in San Francisco, life can get complicated for the humans. Some dogs come here for play, some for nail clips, some for vaccines. Some come for the day, some overnight.

To keep track of schedules and appointments and supplies, managers have begun using what’s called “cloud computing.”

EMPLOYEE: You’re looking for accommodations for your dog?

SPENCER MICHELS: Rather then relying on programs bought and installed on company computers, Wag Hotels use programs and data stored on the Internet, or the “cloud.”

CEO Richard Groberg is a big enthusiast.

RICHARD GROBERG, ceo, Wag Hotels: As we grow, that means more servers; that means more computers and software for all of our employees. With cloud computing, we essentially can have a dummy terminal for employee, and they go onto the Internet, and all of the applications are there waiting for them.

SPENCER MICHELS: Cloud computing is being touted as the next big thing in technology. The cloud, essentially, is the Internet. Data, then, is in the sky, or the clouds — that is, on the Internet, actually in some server, waiting to be called down to Earth, just the way you get information from MapQuest or a Google search.

Using the ever-growing storage capacity of servers belonging to companies like Google or IBM, businesses and scientists and others store data on the Internet and then access that data and the programs to use it online only when they need it.

It’s like hiring taxis instead of owning a car, if you don’t need one all the time. It’s cheaper, and you don’t have to worry about upkeep and breakdowns and parking.

Salesforce.com, a business software service company, is one of the leaders in providing cloud computing. The firm has nearly 60,000 business customers.

MARC BENIOFF, ceo, Salesforce.com: … this whole cloud that we have for infrastructure…

SPENCER MICHELS: Marc Benioff, its CEO, has become an apostle for the concept.

MARC BENIOFF: You’re not having to go out and choose, what software package is right for me? What hardware? Is this software going to work on this hardware? Oh, am I upgraded? Am I updated? All of that is done for you, just like it is on these consumer services. You don’t upgrade Amazon.com.

Companies run from the 'clouds'

SPENCER MICHELS: And you can run a whole business from the clouds, a breakthrough called multitenancy.

MARC BENIOFF: An office building has multiple tenants; well, multitenancy means that you're basically sharing not just an apartment building or an office building, but a computer system. It's a tremendous innovation in how we structure our software itself, that instead of it being written just for you on your server, under your desk, in your office, well, that stuff is being taken care of for you in the cloud.

SPENCER MICHELS: Servers are computers that store and send out data, like a library. With so many servers linked together, businesses or universities can vastly increase available computing power, which they couldn't afford or organize without the cloud.

And a company like Vetrazzo, which makes countertops from recycled glass, can put its sales and raw material information on the Internet under a contract with Salesforce.com. It can be accessed and updated simultaneously by salesmen, executives, and other company officials.

CEO James Sheppard says the cloud has saved him time and money that he used to spend for expensive software.

JAMES SHEPPARD, ceo, Vetrazzo: We track every slab that you see in this factory, and we're shipping, you know, 6,000, 7,000 slabs a year out of here. Every one of these slabs is tracked with a unique ID.

SPENCER MICHELS: Software developers fear they could lose business to the cloud, and business is only one use.

JEN MAZZON, google employee: Now, I'm going to take you guys to school in a little bit here.

SPENCER MICHELS: Jen Mazzon uses cloud computing to run her family life. With twin boys and a 5-year-old daughter and an artist husband, her schedule gets pretty complicated.

JEN MAZZON: I'm not with the people that I love during the day.

You want to put it on the floor? No? What do you...

I mean, you know, my husband, he works in the studio. My kids are either with their grandparents or in daycare. So in order to stay in touch with them and to make sure that, you know, my husband picks up the kids from daycare that day or, you know, that I remember to pick up the dry cleaning, I rely on, you know, information sent to me here.

Cloud computing at home

SPENCER MICHELS: A product manager for Google, Mazzon stays in touch using Google Docs, a program that relies on cloud computing.

JEN MAZZON: I can log into Google Docs and get information about, you know, what my kids have done in school today from the teacher, and I can respond, and we can have a dialogue, so that when I have, you know, five minutes between meetings of downtime, I can say, "You know what? I want to use this five minutes to check in with my teacher on how my kids are doing."

SPENCER MICHELS: Are you saying that the teacher in the school is onto this system, as well, and can reply to you?

JEN MAZZON: Yes, absolutely.

SPENCER MICHELS: Mazzon is aware that some people ridicule her incessant use of the Internet and the cloud as too complicated.

JEN MAZZON: Who doesn't want a simpler life? For me, I find this way of working more simple, because when I'm in a place and I need a piece of information, I have it at my fingertips.

SPENCER MICHELS: On the job, she uses cloud computing to share and work on documents with fellow workers.

JEN MAZZON: What's changed is that everybody is working off the same version of a document that is in the cloud versus working off of their different silos of the documents, each on their own computers.

SPENCER MICHELS: Even the company picnic can be planned in the clouds, favorite foods, and major dislikes, and what everybody will bring.

Google, which uses cloud computing in most of its own development work, is betting the concept will take off and soon will be the standard in business. We talked with Eric Schmidt, the CEO, in Google's own studio, about the science behind cloud computing.

ERIC SCHMIDT, chairman, Google: Computers have gotten so powerful that they can be tiny and amazingly useful. We can now have these huge data farms, and they're getting so much more powerful that we can make sure we keep all your information there and we don't lose it like you will.

SPENCER MICHELS: So why is this important? Why do people say this is the next big thing, cloud computing?

ERIC SCHMIDT: Well, a simple question for a consumer is, have you ever dropped your computer? Have you ever broken it? Has it ever not worked on you? Have you ever sat there and said, "How do I back this thing up? Oh, no, I just lost my term paper."

In cloud computing, the professionals keep track of all the programs and the data, and they make sure you don't lose it.

SPENCER MICHELS: To which a cynic might say, "Hey, Google was down for several hours recently, and previously, as well. If the network goes down, I don't have anything."

ERIC SCHMIDT: Well, that was a terrible thing, and we work really hard to make sure that doesn't happen. I can tell you that we're down a lot less than your computer is.

Security breaches a possible threat

SPENCER MICHELS: But not everyone is in love with the cloud, particularly those worried about privacy issues. In fact, IBM is finding some companies are reluctant to give their company secrets to a third party, according to Vice President Willy Chiu.

WILLY CHIU, vice president, IBM: They don't want to put data in a cloud somewhere where they don't know whether it's going to be secure or not. So having businesses feel secure, feeling safe is what IBM is all about.

SPENCER MICHELS: At the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which advocates for Internet privacy, the concern is that data stored on the Internet could be compromised. Cindy Cohn is legal director.

CINDY COHN, Electronic Frontier Foundation: There's plain-old hackers, security breaches. Sometimes we call those "Data Valdez" at EFF, where there's a spillage of data.

SPENCER MICHELS: Like the Exxon Valdez?

CINDY COHN: Like the Exxon Valdez, only it's your data spilling out, not the oil.

The second risk is from overarching government requests. And, of course, we've seen, especially during the last administration, lots of efforts by the government to wholesale e-collect information about Americans from third parties.

And then we need to make sure that other third parties don't have easy access to that data, either.

SPENCER MICHELS: But those in the data business say they're not worried.

ERIC SCHMIDT: We operate under exactly the same laws that you do. And if your information is so important you have to hide it from the government, we probably don't want you to give it to us anyway.

MARC BENIOFF: The reality is, is that there is tremendous laws and legal infrastructure globally to protect your privacy.

SPENCER MICHELS: So far, cloud computing, while growing fast, is largely used for basic business applications: accounting, scheduling, sales, and so forth. It may be a while before more complicated and specific needs, like architectural design, appear in the cloud.

JIM LEHRER: You can watch more of Spencer's interview with Google CEO Schmidt on our Web site. Also there on our education page is "NewsHour Extra," and you can find more about cloud computing and a lesson plan about privacy issues. It's all at newshour.pbs.org.

Editor's Note: A footnote on cloud computing and architecture: The technology is available in the architectural design and building industries. The National Institute of Building Sciences is part of an international effort to promote the issue.