Scott Granneman is an author, educator, and consultant. Scott has written three books (Don’t Click on the Blue E!: Switching to Firefox, Hacking Knoppix, and the seminal Linux Phrasebook), co-authored one (Podcasting with Audacity: Creating a Podcast With Free Audio Software), and contributed to two (Ubuntu Hacks and Microsoft Vista for IT Security Professionals). In addition, he is a monthly columnist for SecurityFocus, with op/ed pieces that focus on general security topics, and for Linux Magazine, in a column focusing on new and interesting Linux software. He formerly blogged professionally on The Open Source Weblog and Download Squad.
As an educator, Scott has taught thousands of people of all ages–from preteens to senior citizens–on a wide variety of topics, including literature and technology. He has worked to educate people at all levels of technical skill about open source technologies, such as Linux and Firefox, and open standards. He is currently an Adjunct Professor at Washington University in St. Louis, where he teaches a variety of courses about technology, the Internet, and security.
As a Principal of WebSanity, he works with businesses and non-profits to take full advantage of the Internet’s communications, sales, and service opportunities. He researches new technologies and manages the firm’s UNIX-based server environment, thereby putting what he writes and teaches into practical use, and works closely with other partners on the underlying WebSanity Content Management System (CMS).
Introduction: Computing in the Cloud
Introduction: Computing in the Cloud
Microsoft Office is the undisputed 800-pound gorilla in the office suite jungle, with millions of users and billions of dollars in sales. However, as we saw in King Kong, even the mightiest gorilla can be hurt by enough buzzing planes. If one of those planes is actually a mighty jet named Google, then good ol’ Kong may be facing more trouble than he’s anticipated.
Over the last few years, Google has been polishing Google Apps, its online suite of software that includes most of the features found in mainstream office suites, and then some:
- Word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations
- Email and contacts, including message security and recovery
- Wikis and websites
- Instant messaging
- Video sharing
Google is seeing phenomenal success with Google Apps. Over 3000 businesses a day are signing up at a rate of over one million per year. In total, over 500,000 businesses use Google Apps, with more than ten million active users. Of those, hundreds of thousands pay for the Premier Edition of Google Apps, which costs $50 per year. In the realm of education, thousands of universities, with more than one million active students and staff on six continents, are using Google Apps.
Some of those clients in business include the following:
- Brasil Telecom
- The District of Columbia (38,000 employees)
- Indoff (500 employees)
- L’Oreal R&D
- Procter & Gamble Global Business Services
- Prudential Real Estate Affiliates (450 employees)
- Telegraph Media Group (1400 employees)
- Valeo (32,000 employees)
As for clients in education, there are many impressive wins in that list as well:
- Arizona State University (65,000 students)
- George Washington University
- Hofstra University
- Indiana University
- Kent State University
- Northwestern University (14,000 students)
- University of Delhi
- University of North Carolina—Greensboro
- University of Southern California
- University of Virginia
Just to give one example, Arizona State University has 65,000 students, which is obviously a huge number, but it took only two weeks to deploy Google Apps. As a result of the switch, ASU is now saving $500,000 a year, which is nothing to sneeze at.
This might all seem like a drop in the bucket compared with Microsoft’s reach and profits, and in strictly numerical terms it is. However, remember that Google makes its money primarily through ad sales, and it therefore has an overwhelming interest in moving as much of our lives as possible online. The more we move online, the more opportunities Google has to place ads in front of our eyeballs.
In addition, every person who starts using Google Apps is potentially one less customer for Microsoft, which hurts Google’s biggest competitor in the long run. Microsoft has finally woken up to the fact that software and services are inexorably moving to the Net, and it has responded with its own attempts in this area, called Microsoft Online Services.
Note - Microsoft also markets a service called Office Live (http://www.officelive.com), but don’t be fooled. That’s just rebranded Hotmail, document storage (you still have to have Word, Excel, and PowerPoint installed on your PC), and el cheapo website hosting.
Microsoft’s involvement, however, remains tied to its “software plus services” model, in which online tools still require the use of software running on a PC to work. This protects Microsoft’s cash cows, Windows and Office, first and foremost, while allowing the company to trumpet its participation in moving online as well.
If you look more closely at Microsoft’s offering, you see that it still requires software that runs on your computer beyond just a web browser. Sure, the cheapest offering —$3 per user per month—provides email through a web browser, but that’s just Outlook Web Access pointed to an Exchange server. To use other tools such as SharePoint server access for document sharing and collaboration, expensive licenses for Microsoft Office are still mandatory.
Prices go up from there so that the full package, with hosted Exchange and SharePoint and other tools, starts at $15 per user per month, which comes to $180 per year per person. And of course it works only with Microsoft software, which means Windows and Office. You can use a Mac to read email, but you have to use Entourage, Microsoft’s Outlook-like program that’s part of the company’s Office suite, for Macs. Linux users? Don’t be silly!
It’s not just Microsoft, however. Yahoo is sniffing around the hosted services concept with the formation of a new Cloud Computing & Data Infrastructure Group. And Amazon has been doing this for years with its Amazon Web Services (http://aws.amazon.com), which includes Elastic Compute Cloud, Simple DB, Simple Storage Service, and Simple Queue Service.
Something is changing in business, on the Internet, and in technology. The term that is increasingly used to apply to this change is cloud computing.
THE RISE OF CLOUD COMPUTING
As a term of technical slang, the “cloud” refers to the Internet, so cloud computing refers to Internet-centric software and services that are outsourced to someone else and offered on pay-as-you-go terms. In the case of Google Apps, organizations don’t have to install software on their computers (and it doesn’t matter if those computers are running Windows, Mac OS X, or Linux), and they don’t have to install and maintain expensive servers and the associated software they require to run. Instead, they simply access Google’s services in a web browser.
Everything is on Google’s infrastructure—the software, the data, the backups, everything—and is therefore accessible in the cloud from anywhere. It doesn’t matter if you’re getting to Google Apps from your computer at work or at home, or from your iPhone or BlackBerry, or from your office or somewhere in Timbuktu because everything you need is always available in Google’s cloud.
It’s not a new idea per se—decades ago, Sun co-founder John Gage proclaimed that “the network is the computer”—but it’s finally been able to reach a period of reality and even hypergrowth thanks to the spread of reliable high-speed Internet access coupled with the virtually limitless supplies of computer storage and processing power. As it gets cheaper and cheaper for companies such as Google and Amazon to build out massive server farms, and then connect those mind-bogglingly powerful resources to users across the world via the Internet, new and exciting technologies become possible. Case study number one: Google Apps, the subject of this book.
Of course, there are problems that companies building services in the cloud and users of those services will face.
To start with, there’s reliability. Yes, even the mighty Google has stumbled. In July 2008, for example, Google Docs was unavailable to many users for an hour or so. Virtually all companies have suffered downtimes, however, ranging from eBay to Amazon to Royal Bank of Canada to AT&T. This is simply a fact of life. Downtimes will happen. Humans can attempt to plan for every eventuality, but mistakes, errors, and even natural events beyond our control intrude and cause problems. It’s an interesting psychological fact, though, that we humans exhibit something called the illusion of control. For instance, we are far more likely to die in a car than on a plane, but people are often psychologically more comfortable driving in their cars than riding on planes due to the fact that drivers feel in control of the situation, while passengers may not.
For this reason, many people feel safer running their own servers instead of outsourcing to Google because they want that feeling of control over their machines and their data. However, Google now offers a service level agreement (SLA) for the Premier Edition of Google Apps that guarantees 99.9% uptime for Gmail (that means about 9 hours of downtime a year). SLAs for other services are coming soon as well.
In addition, take a look at 99.9% uptime guarantee. Before you refuse to even consider using Google Apps, think honestly about your own organization’s infrastructure. I know you work hard, and you do the absolute best you can, but can you honestly say that your servers are down less than 9 hours a year? If so, then maybe you should continue doing things the way you’ve been doing them. But if not, maybe you should think a bit more about cloud computing the Google way.
In fact, more than just a lack of downtime, I would argue that customers actually want honest communication about problems and what cloud computing providers are doing about them. If a service I use is down, that’s annoying, but if I can see that the service providers know about the issue and follow along as they fix it, I’m fine. I’m in the loop, and that reduces my stress an...