Sunday, March 29, 2009

Life in the Clouds - return of the dumb terminal?

What applications do you most on your computer - a word processor, email client, picture editing, video editing, spreadsheets, games, a web browser, a presentation package? That probably covers it for most of us. Cloud service companies like Google want to reduce all that to just one - the web browser. All the other uses listed above have web versions and if there is any application you use that doesn't currently have a web version then it is a pretty safe bet there is a developer somewhere beavering away to be the first to bring a workable online version to market.

The online versions are often slower, lack many of the features of the offline version and have the distinct disadvantage of being unavailable when you can't connect to the internet. As time goes on though it is easy to see that these issues will all go away. While our desire for better internet access outstrips what ISP's can provide, the reality is that Internet access continues to get faster, more widespread and more reliable.

So the idea of our future computing needs being met by a device that just boots to a browser window connected to the cloud seems like a viable idea. Hmm what would this mean for Apple & Microsoft I wonder? Even things like an iPod are threatened by the business models such a device could support. Why manage all those songs and videos on an iPod when you could subscribe for say €10 a month to a media library with millions of songs, recordings and videos all accessible on your always connected cloud device.

Way back when - a long time ago - when I was in Trinity College learning C++ on a DEC PDP 11 it didn't seem strange to me that I never actually saw the computer I was working on. I used a dumb terminal on the 2nd floor of the Maths building and the computer lived a floor or two above where I was working. There was no feeling that if only I could plug a keyboard and monitor directly into the computer I would get a better computing experience. I have fond memories of playing around with programming on that old Unix behemoth but it does seem strange now that I can think back fondly on that computer but that I never actually saw it.

In my school we have a number of Linux thin client computers which are I suppose the modern GUI equivalent of the old text based dumb terminal. They have no hard disk, floppy drive, cd drive etc. They have no local storage and no moving parts. We have been using the same thin clients for the last six years and the funny thing is they are faster now than when I first installed them. Why are they faster? Because they depend entirely on the server and when we bought a faster server the thin clients all got a speed boost.

Now the same kind of thing is coming to the cloud. Take a look at this one . This is the games equivalent of thin client computing. Their claim is you dont need to buy a high end computer with bags of RAM, top end graphics card, sound card etc. in order to play high end games. Instead the games run on their servers and all that is fed to your computer/device are the sights and sounds of the game. All the number crunching happens on their servers. When they upgrade their machine your device gets the benefit of the upgrade with no need for you to go out and buy the latest and greatest to enjoy the best experience.

Now in my mind if they can do it with high end games, why not do it with the whole operating system. Thin client computing in the cloud where you get a full blown operating system experience that you get with a laptop computer but where everything is happening out there somewhere. There are projects out there that aim to bring access to an operating system through a browser. Here's one for example . But why settle for an operating system in a browser when you could just do it directly to the cloud without the limitations of a browser?

I saw a story today of a university that is moving towards dismantling its computer labs as nearly all their students have their own laptops and can work wherever they have wireless access. Where there is expensive specialist software needed for a course the plan is to have a system in place where students can use the sofware remotely from their laptops. Rather than students installing the software on their laptops they will remotely access a server and run the software there. Going down this road will free up all the space their labs are taking at the moment, will save money as they won't have to buy and maintain the labs and can invest in a more reliable network infrastructure for their students to tap into from their laptops.

I wonder how long it will be till we see the same thing happening in colleges here. How long after that will we be using the same kind of setup in our schools where students will have their mobile device which taps into the cloud. If students all have their own device with internet access etc. will we get to the stage where our schools have no network infrastructure, no servers, no cables, no desktop computers - in short - no network.

A lot of my job entails managing, developing and maintaining the network in my school. I reckon I'm going to be doing the same thing for quite a few years yet but I can see a time when history books will record the odd things schools and businesses used to do where they had these network admin folk whose job it was to wander around keeping things going and the students will be puzzled by this strange practice. It will be up there with the notion of a telephone in a house with a cable coming out the back of it that you couldn't carry around with you. Cut to a classroom of the future - "Joseph, pay attention - sit up straight - now explain to the class what a 'land line' was .......... hmm .. no answer .... Mary tell Joseph, who wasn't listening, what a 'land line' was" - well of course some things never change.