"Right now, cloud computing means more promises than services,” says David Soll, chief technology officer of Omicron Consulting in Bala Cynwood, Pennsylvania. “But watch out. It is a revolutionary concept that is evolving to offer users almost limitless customized capabilities.”

At this point, exact definitions of cloud computing seem as amorphous as its metaphorical name. Most simply put, cloud computing is working with Internet-based programs such as Google Documents, rather than with software installed directly into your computer.

Some business-oriented skeptics, see it suspiciously like a cartel, with all the providers uniting to control both services and rates. Many small tech firms, however, are touting it as an ever-stretching smorgasbord of client-tailored services. Whatever your definition, it’s cyber-makeover is just beginning.

To help unsnarl the Gordian lines that make up this next new computing step, Soll will present “Cloud Computing — A General State of the Union” at the Princeton ACM/IEEE on Thursday, December 17 at 7:30 p.m. in the Computer Science Building, Room CS 105, of Princeton University. To register for this free event E-mail princetonacm@acm.org or visit www.princetonacm.org.

Soll has witnessed his share of “computer revolutions” throughout his nearly three decades in the field. A native of Bucks County, Soll attended Drexel University, graduating in 1980 with a bachelor’s in electrical engineering. Joining RCA upon graduation, he helped develop the first video tape recorder controlled by digital software.

Three years later Soll formed his own firm, Microtech, which developed custom software and hardware. “One of our most fun projects was the creation of the world’s first beauty computer,” says Soll. For Japan’s POLA Cosmetics, Microtech developed computerized testing for skin color, firmness, etc., so stores could put women on the right makeover regimen.

In l989 Microtech merged with the still-fledgling Omicron and Soll brought all his staff along to help build one of the leading IT service companies in the region.

“View cloud computing as the ultimate IT outsourcing,” says Soll, “where each user has the chance to dynamically control all the resources.”

Of course, as with any outsourcing, there stands a long continuum of benefits and caveats.

Elephant pieces. While perception is based on perspective, the concept of cloud computing holds several basic, tangible features. Each individual PC carries a series of selected software to perform tasks. Each generated document or spreadsheet lies within that gray box and may be shared, via E-mail, with other PC owners. By whisking everything up into the cloud, all that software and all that data get stored and maintained in a central data center, offsite. As a user, you subscribe to one host company’s services.

The upside is that users have at their fingertips, a wide range of services, for which they do not have to purchase individual software packets. Freed from holding memory-costly software, individual computers have more room to store what they were designed to store —work.

Hassles are fewer since the offsite storage firm handles all the upgrades, system maintenance, repairs, and security without your even knowing it.

Costs should be cheaper because software purchasing is erased, and subscribers pay a flat monthly fee, based on use.

So what’s not to love? For one thing, the shedding of every E-mail, fiscal report, and personal memo to some distant megawarehouse means a loss of contro.

Google, which has a cloud that stores participant’s documents in international centers, claims that security in-cloud is much better. Historically, however, information held close by the small and vigilant has not proved less secure than that held by the huge and far away. Additionally, as with every outsourcing, one must ask to whom has the outsourcer outsourced — and how solid is that sub-host’s electronic infrastructure?

Finally there is the question of your information being held hostage. Information stored for free today might have to be ransomed tomorrow.

Granted, every piece of cyber data is somewhat in the hands of the various providers. But using the cloud puts each document on the Internet, for viewing by those the subscriber personally selects. To those unselected, each of these bulletin board postings remains inaccessible.

We trust.

Down to business. Soll, like most experts, believes that the many benefits and evolving safeguards will overcome these fears. “What this means for businesses is that the small company will have every equal advantage as the large corporation that has installed entire systems in-house,” says Soll. “The capabilities are no longer limited by individual software costs.”

By subscribing to a cloud server, computer use becomes like a utility. You pay only for the services and time used.

Other savings come from the lessened staff and contractor time spent installing, upgrading, connecting, repairing, and expanding current systems. In effect, businesses are leasing computer capabilities.

The custom tailoring should prove not only cheap but infinite. “The cloud already has in stock all the code, ready-written for all the applications,” explains Soll. “All your (or their) IP people have to do is write in the personalized veneer to the total package.”

Uniting a company’s accounting, customer relation management, and human resources functions, could take two applications and one database. To add sales/inventory control could involve adding another database; even if your basic functions demand another CPU, the host provides.

“You don’t even have to think about it,” says Soll. “Just enter the data and the cloud takes care of the expansion automatically.”

What you do have to think about, very carefully, is to which service you want to subscribe.

Apples and oranges. “The cloud is not a mature industry,” says Soll. “Each hosting service is offering vastly different products.”

For some, it’s strictly SAAS — software as a service — with all the latest toys and tools seamlessly available. Others offer varying levels of support for the core operating system, like having your own mechanic waiting in your garage, waiting to tune up your vehicle.

Still others focus on sharing and dissemination of documents and information, such as Microsoft’s SharePoint. Because of the broad product range, prices vary wildly; buyers must be careful examiners.

Fortunately, hosts have been very instructive and upfront. Cloud connectors such as Rackspace, Google Apps and Docs, Amazon, and Microsoft tell what they do and make it clear what they do not offer. Most clients do not want to deal with code writing, but for those who with the capability and desire to customize, many hosts offer collaborative channels.

Into the future. Soll sees cloud computing as an evolutionary, rather than a revolutionary takeover. The psychological factor of control-loss will make many slow to embrace the emerging method. Logistically, pipelines (mostly bandwidth) will have to expand to handle the increased traffic from storehouses to users. To date, cloud computing remains more an experimental alternative than a mature, fully-infrastructured industry.

In January Microsoft is slated to unveil its new cloud platform Azure. “I cannot predict how well it will sell,” says Soll. “But one thing is for sure. It will definitely change permanently our view of what can be done with a computer.”

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