A slightly modified version of this interview has appeared in today's edition of the Economic Times.
What is Cloud Computing ?
Cloud Computing is less about any particular technology and more about how we use technology to reduce costs and improve efficiency. In Cloud Computing you move your data - and the programs that operate on this data - from private machines - desktop PCs or corporate servers - to machines owned by vendors.
How does this help ?
It reduces cost - both capital and operating, through economies of scale. It is like replacing the electricity generator in your home by plugging into the electricity supply : the cost and nuisance value of generating power at home is far more than having it supplied from a central utility. When a vendor supports a hundred customers with his bank of servers and support staff the cost to each individual customer goes down.
An intriguing concept, but does it work ?
Many of us are already using Cloud Computing without being aware of it. When you host a website or use Gmail or Hotmail you are using a server that is owned and operated by a vendor and your data - your web pages or your precious email - is resident on the vendors' machines. Your data is somewhere in the internet "cloud" !
Then what is this new hype and buzz about Cloud Computing ?
Websites and email are "new age", internet applications - not in the same league as traditional personal productivity tools - word processors, spreadsheets - or business applications like Order Management or Customer Relationship Management. The current buzz is because of the possibility of migrating these traditional applications from private machines to the shared machines offered by vendors.
How do you actually do this ?
Consider Google Docs - as an alternative to Microsoft Office. On the Google Docs website the browser will show a screen that is very similar to that in a traditional word processor or spreadsheet. You can create and edit documents or populate a spreadsheet with data and formulae but when you finally save your data ... it goes and sits, not on your hard disk but on the Google servers - and you can access this data later from any other machine that is connected to the internet.
What about business applications ?
If you have an ERP server you can of course have it located on vendor premises but you could also build your own applications and have it hosted on the web.
Does it mean learning new technology ?
Not really. My students - both in Praxis and at IIT, Kharagpur - have been building and deploying fairly complex applications on the web using the Zoho platform that looks like a combination of Visual Basic and MS Access - except that it is free and resides entirely on the Zoho website. There is nothing to purchase, download or install.
Can this be used to build really complex applications ?
Depending on your skill you can build complex applications either on Zoho or on the Google Apps Engine but quite a few applications in HR, CRM and Finance are available off the shelf.
What if I cannot access the internet ?
That is like power outage - a risk that one has to live with but with wireless broadband becoming available this risk is diminishing everyday.
Is it safe to put company data on third party servers ?
Is it safe to put your money in the bank ? It is - if the bank has a good reputation. So is the case here. One must choose a reliable vendor and more importantly one must make sure that the data is not getting locked into any proprietary format. As long as the data is in an SQL compliant database, then you always have the option of unloading your data and using it elsewhere.
Who are the good vendors ?
Almost every vendor offers a service in this area but the two that I encourage my students to try out - because there is no cost involved - is Zoho and Google. In fact, in my new book I have shown how a non-programmer can build and deploy a Zoho application in less than 60 minutes.
What is this book all about ?
"Business Information Systems" is based on my lectures at Praxis and IIT Kharagpur. Both students and managers will find this book useful not only for traditional topics like RDBMS and Object Oriented Programming but for many new age concepts like Web 2.0 and Cloud Computing.
Where do you get these unusual ideas ?
I am engineer by education, a programmer by passion and an imagineer by intention ... and my subscription to Slashdot keeps me abreast of what is happening in the world of computers.
Dr Prithwis Mukerjee teaches Systems Engineering at the Praxis Business School, Calcutta and at IIT, Kharagpur. You can read about his new book "Business Information Systems" at http://bis.yantrajaal.com