What is Cloud Computing?

The emergence of very large “data farms” — specialized data centers that host thousands of servers — has created a surplus of computing resources that has come to be called the cloud. Growing out of research in grid computing, cloud computing transforms once-expensive resources like disk storage and processing cycles into a readily available, cheap commodity. Development platforms layered onto the cloud infrastructure enable thin-client, web-based applications for image editing, word processing, social networking, and media creation. Many of us use the cloud, or cloud-based applications, without even being aware of it. Applications like Flickr, Google, YouTube, and many others use the cloud as their platform, using storage space and computing resources from many available machines as needed.

The “cloud” is a term used to describe the vast collections of networked computers, typically housed in regionally distributed and redundant data centers that comprise the totality of the Internet. Cloud computing is a set of strategies that distribute data, applications, and computing cycles across the many machines in such data centers, and even across data centers. Cloud computing currently includes three broad areas of development: cloud-based applications, which are designed for many different tasks and hosted in the cloud; development platforms for creating cloud-based applications; and massive computing resources for storage and processing.

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(1) How might this technology be relevant to the museums you know best?

  • Wary as I am of any buzzword that teeters atop a Gartner hype curve (http://www.gartner.com/hc/images/215650_0001.gif), I still believe that the wide array of types of services and resources lumped under the rubric of "cloud" will come to be increasingly useful to many museums, especially for (1) public-facing pieces of technical infrastructure for scalable, pay-as-you-go content delivery (and ideally, content acceptance/sharing), and (2) some kinds of back-end infrastructure. The latter, less widely visible use cases may be especially beneficial to smaller museums whose staff determine that managing the risks of cloud-based storage (and/or externally hosted software, etc.) is more feasible for certain applications in their institutional contexts than is managing the risks of supporting those same needs with local hardware--for which, for example, major equipment budgets for needed redundancy and reasonable replacement schedules may simply be absent, or not foreseeable with sufficient certainty beyond one or a few years. - rob.lancefield rob.lancefield Aug 30, 2011
  • Agree with Rob on all points and think this is useful to both small and large museums. - allegra.burnette allegra.burnette Aug 31, 2011
  • I have long held that for most museums, the management of complex technologies is not nor should it be expected to be a core competency -- however, the creative of use of technologies should be. Cloud computing supports this premise. To that end, the extent to which museums can focus scant human and financial resources on savvy use of technology (including content creation) in line with mission, and off-load such typical day-to-day concerns as storage and back-up, application support, email, even phone systems/pbx, business/disaster recovery, etc. (and as or if cloud based services and resources become more cost-effective), they will find themselves doing many more, and much more rewarding, tech-based "things."

(2) What themes are missing from the above description that you think are important?

  • The cloud's distributed nature can offer one useful means of maintaining geographically dispersed copies of local digital resources, especially if replicated across systems independently maintained by more than one cloud storage provider. (Of course, offsite hosted storage is nothing new; but compared to, say, plain SFTP to a server somewhere, some of its newer incarnations under the banner of "cloud storage" offer such advantages as improved capabilities for integration into local workflows, and more automagical scalability.) Security of sensitive or confidential information in the cloud often is a real concern, and rightly so; but this should not obscure the fact that security of information on locally managed, networked devices is not intrinsically or automatically any better, and should also be an equally real concern. Wherever the touchy stuff lives (up in the ether or under your own roof), its security needs ongoing thought and management. This makes cloud security no less crucial to assess, but it's not a simple binary point of difference between "insecure" cloud-based and "secure" local solutions to any given need. - rob.lancefield rob.lancefield Aug 30, 2011
  • Interesting to think about what impact Apple's iCloud will have on this discussion. - allegra.burnette allegra.burnette Aug 31, 2011

(3) What do you see as the potential impact of this technology on education and interpretation in museums?

  • One direct impact may be wider access to digital resources, perhaps especially storage-intensive time-based media, from museums of all sizes as they employ cloud services for certain kinds of content delivery (e.g., video); and it's hard to imagine that this impact will be limited to those unidirectional flows, as cloud services can be used to accommodate media-rich contributions from non-museum sources as well (visitor-made videos, whatever) in ways that serve teaching, learning, and interpretation. Another educational impact may be less immediately or obviously felt, but equally important: more sustainable access to, and usability of, some such resources over time from some smaller museums, which may have the operational capability to manage cloud services effectively over the long haul, but not to fund and manage the in-house hardware that would be necessary to provide comparable continuity of those same services year after year. Not to imply that the cloud magically would ensure durable access, but it could dial down (at lower, contextually more feasible cost) certain risks to durability in certain institutional contexts. - rob.lancefield rob.lancefield Aug 30, 2011
  • As more museum resources are placed publicly online, and especially is associated with events like openings that can spike demand, bandwidth cost and availability becomes an issue. Cloud-based content and the availability of high and dynamic bandwidth access may solve that problem in a very cost-effective way. (Please note that I have added the "bandwidth" as a technology on the horizon issue) - len.steinbach len.steinbach Sep 1, 2011
  • Another perspective here.

(4) Do you have or know of a project working in this area?

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