Get Clear On Clouds

Has “cloud computing” left some users in a fog?
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Has “cloud computing” left some users in a fog?
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Has “cloud computing” left some users in a fog? Does the recent blitz of news stories about cloud computing products have some folks wondering what they are missing? Well, here is the bulletin those people have been waiting for: Anyone who has used a computer at all since the 1960’s, has been using cloud computing.


Remember the days when computers were always on a desk and tied either by modem or direct connection to some facility based “computer center,” and all the applications—from spreadsheets, databases and word processors to computer language compilers—actually ran on the “mainframe”? Remember when all data was stored in the “data center,” and data could not be physically held unless a copy was requested. And when it was held, it was usually in the form of a large reel of magnetic tape, paper tape or a paper print out. The majority of users never had physical access to the mainframe or online storage facility, and some may have called it “TSO” (time sharing option) computing or client-server computing. Today that would be called “cloud computing.”

Anyone who has used a bank ATM, or swiped a credit card at the grocery store has used cloud computing. The user has no idea where the data is, or where the application being used resides, yet the user knew how to access it. The URL (“universal” or “uniform resource locator”) for the ATM might be located at “the corner of 5th and Main Streets,” or for the credit card swiper, at the end of the checkout line. For the ATM and credit cards, the URL is the users wallet. By accessing those URLs through the appropriate user interfaces, the user runs complex applications that update and keep track of your data somewhere out there in the cloud.

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The “information age” and advent of the World Wide Web caused data and application servers to spread all over the globe. “A single user from a single interface might run what appeared to be a single application or task which actually triggered processing on numerous servers and drew data from numerous locations in parallel. “Web portals” have enabled users to point browsers at a single URL and obtain data from many different servers aggregated to a single user interface page.

For a time the PC filled the gap between the era of annoying TSO traffic jams, giving users local physical possession and control of data and applications. Meanwhile, gains in data processing and transmission capacity brought us back to the client-server model. For most of us, it was limited to accessing public data with a personally owned application like a web browser or email client. Internet message access protocol (IMAP) severs, blogs and applications like Facebook, and Twitter cemented a trend toward keeping personal data, (i.e. data users “own”) in locations other than their local storage. While it is likely that users will keep copies of the data locally, it is hardly different than the mag tapes and listings of the TSO era.


The growth of social networking has overcome concerns about “living in e-space”. A natural consequence has been for the public to make increasing use of “e-closets” and “e-file drawers” for storing personal data online, be it banking, billing accounts, medical records or personal back-ups of our personal computers. Many large institutions in industrial, financial, medical and research markets have always contracted with third parties for IT services. Applications and data remain “external” while client hardware and software provide access from within the organization. These days, that might be called a “private cloud”.

The rich media production industry, however, is late to the party. Its demands on processing and transmission horsepower have kept it from being able to migrate to the cloud in any meaningful way. However, during the past five years, the growth of “distributed work flows” and non-local media servers have created the foundation for many private video/audio production clouds. In large measure, these foundations are based on a model where media processing applications (editing and finishing tools) reside on local hosts and operate on copies of source media retrieved to local storage. But some companies, including well-known players like Quantel and Avid have started to go beyond that model with “cloud-based” (non-local) media processing applications. Bandwidth concerns might mean that low-resolution proxies get stored locally but the actual application, source and processed media are in different locations from the user and potentially each other.

The new “cloud” vocabulary came into play when IT equipment, service and application vendors decided to shift the market to a new model for monetization. It is the next step in the inexorable march toward pay-per-use. An example of that is Microsoft’s “Office 365,” which is a cloud-based version of the popular Microsoft Office application suite. The application and the data reside in a public cloud. Microsoft controls access to the application via subscription-based licenses, while the user—or “data owner”—controls access to the data produced with the apps. Subscriptions run from $6 to $27 per user per month depending on which services / applications the user needs to access.


“Mobile computing” is driving the current emphasis on the cloud. When neither your applications nor data are locked to a specific device, users can get the same “experience” through familiar tools on desktops, laptops, tablets and smart phones anywhere they have access to the Internet. So, for users who typically are not locked to a “seat,” cloud hosted applications and data storage are an advantage. Issues of security and bandwidth weigh heavily on whether to use private or public clouds, and users can access a hybrid public-private implementation.

For media production, cloud solutions exist for tasks such as ingest, low-resolution review, roughcutting with proxies, graphic production and media management. Cloud-based finishing tasks like color correction, FX work, audio-video enhancement and forensic analysis, may be a few years away from general availability and cost-effectiveness. Nonetheless, just as the technical demands of rich media production made it late to the digital information technology party, so to will it be one of the last industries to become fully enveloped in the clouds.