Application Data in the Cloud

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While software engineers get excited about running code in the cloud–in Amazon’s Web Services, Google’s App Engine or Microsoft’s new Azure platform–for the vast majority of consumers, “cloud computing” is more about trusting the cloud to hold their personal data and documents.

Although widespread use of the word “cloud” as a buzzword is recent, the concept is positively ancient in Internet terms. After all, it’s been commonplace to store email in the cloud since at least early in this decade, and digital photo albums have been stored online since 2004.

Google upped the ante in 2006 by providing online storage for documents–initially spreadsheets and word-compatible documents–together with web-based editing capabilities.

This year, the “data in the cloud” movement accelerated with almost simultaneous announcements from Apple and Microsoft.

Apple announced “MobileMe” at its World Wide Developer Conference in June. MobileMe replaced .MAC in July and includes 20GB of online storage plus a bunch of services including calendar, email, photos and so on. Calendar, email and documents are synchronized between participating devices, which–for now–means Macintosh computers, iPhones and some limited Microsoft Exchange integration.

Microsoft’s Live Mesh, announced in April but still in beta, provides a similar set of synchronization capabilities, but with a more ambitious architecture and broader reach. On the plus side, it contains a broader set of building block services such as identification. On the down side, these services are somewhat Windows-centric and Microsoft-centric. It’s not yet known, for example, if Microsoft will support non-Microsoft identification schemes such as OpenId.

Meanwhile, a lot of smaller players are developing solutions that involve cloud storage. Evernote provides a Web-based alternative to Microsoft Office OneNote. The application allows you to store mixed format notes–text, photos, etc. –in a Web-based console. At first, Evernote appealed to me simply due to the more simplistic organization; I kept losing things in OneNote’s flexible but complex hierarchy. But once I installed the Evernote rich client applications–for PC and iPhone, I began to experience the power of cloud data.

Evernote’s rich clients allow me to work with my notes offline on any computer I frequent – home, work or laptop. If I happen to be on a foreign computer, I can use the Web client. The iPhone client gives me access on the go. The synchronization is painless and transparent. It’s a remarkably liberating experience.

Evernote deserves kudos for solving two other problems that plague me. First, Evernote transparently handles proxy servers. When my laptop is at home, it uses a direct connection; at work, it uses my employer’s proxy server. Unlike virtually every other software I use, I never have to tell Evernote whether or not to use the proxy server–it just works.

Second, the Web clipping widget allows me to quickly capture screens from online Webcasts. I have other ways of doing this, but only Evernote provides a one-click solution.
Cloud storage–with offline caching and transparent synchronization–is something we’re going to see a lot more. Microsoft, Google and, to a lesser extent, Apple, hope to provide an integrated single architecture that they can leverage to gain market advantage. While there are undoubtedly advantages to a highly cohesive single cloud framework, the way of the Web so far has been to favor loose coalitions, “sloppy” standards and incredible diversity. My guess is we will be mixing and matching cloud offerings from multiple vendors for some time to come.