Let’s be clear about one thing: Richard Stallman is a legend in the programming world, and his opinion is worth listening to. He was one of the brains behind the Free Software Foundation and other initiatives, and has been a force for freedom and open source and all of those other good things for many years. He also has a real guru/holy man kind of hair and beard thing going on, which clearly works for him, and I admire that. That said, however, I think his Chicken Little routine with regard to “cloud computing” is a little over-done. I know RMS would rather that we all program our own operating systems and use software that we whipped up with vi and a programmable calculator, but that just isn’t going to happen.
The fact is that people want their computers and software and so on to be convenient, and to let them work faster and easier. Yes, it matters that things are free and open and that monopolies are resisted, etc. But at the same time, reality means that lots of people use Windows and so they are already trapped to a certain extent. From that point of view, moving to a “cloud” model — even if it does involve storing all their files and mail and photos with The Great Google in the Sky — is actually a good thing. Is it any better to have your email trapped in a .pst file that can only be read by a very expensive version of Microsoft Office? No.
Call it a clash of competing clouds. It seems that Google is launching an application-hosting service that appears to be going head-to-head with Amazon’s trio of distributed computing services — the EC2 computing network, the S3 storage service and the SimpleDB database offering, all of which provide a kind of back-end in a box for companies that want to scale quickly. So is Google’s “App Engine,” which the company described at one of its invitation-only campfire events on Monday night, a real competitor for Amazon, or just a me-too knock-off?
Aaron Brazell of Technosailor — former technology guru for b5media — says the Google announcement is “much to do about nothing.” Among other things, Aaron says that Python, the only programming language that Google’s service currently supports, is not trivial to learn or to implement (several commenters on the TechCrunch post also seemed to think that restricting it to Python was a big negative as well). Aaron’s other beef with Google’s initiative is that it seems like an “Amazon S3 me-too” kind of product. “There is no innovation here,” he says.
To be fair, however, at least some of what Aaron is skeptical about — including privacy concerns, and the wisdom of hosting applications on remote systems run by some other company — arguably apply to both Amazon’s and Google’s suite of services. To me, the bigger question is whether companies will be drawn to Google as a host for their distributed services over someone like Amazon. I think they might. And if the Python limitation is only temporary (as Google suggested it is) then that could open up the doors even further for developers. Brady Forrest of O’Reilly says that he likes the approach Google is taking.
So now we’ve got the Google File System going up against S3, and BigTable going up against SimpleDB, and EC2 going up against Google’s server stack (no cool name for that, apparently). Is this the Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier fight of the tech world? Hulk Hogan vs. King Kong Bundy? Or is it Paris Hilton vs. Nicole Ritchie? Update: SmugMug CEO Don MacAskill (whose service uses Amazon S3 a lot) has a take on Google’s App Engine — he sees it as interesting, but not much of a competitor — and he’s also worried about lock-in.
Kevin Kelleher has a post up at GigaOm with an interesting proposition: he says Google should duplicate the kinds of cloud-based services that Amazon has — the S3 storage business, the EC2 virtual server business and so on — except do it all for free. He rightly argues that this would be an easy way to eat Amazon’s lunch (the idea stems from a post by my old friend Dave Winer, who wrote about a pig coming up to his car and talking to him, which may or may not be some kind of metaphor).
I’m not saying Google should make its cloud services free because I want free storage space and a virtual disk drive that is 100 gigabytes and free blog hosting that doesn’t go down for an hour or two every few days, the way my current host does — well, okay, that’s part of the reason I think Google should do it. But I also think it makes perfect sense for the company. Offering things like Gmail and Google Docs and Google Calendar for free is in their DNA. Why not use the spare space on those 500,000 servers to the maximum? It’s a slam-dunk.
A few days ago it was the RIM network that suddenly went down, cutting people off from their emails and other BlackBerry goodness (which some saw as a good thing rather than a catastrophe) — and this morning it was Amazon’s S3 network that suddenly went offline. The network provides cheap remote storage for dozens of Web startups, including Twitter, as well as some larger companies. What users of those services wound up with for several hours was a host of 404 and other errors.
This is something I was just talking about on TVO’s The Agenda program (there’s more info here, if you’re interested), and I wrote another post about it after reading danah boyd’s account of someone who was suddenly cut off by Google. Ironically, in that post I mentioned how I was in the process of backing up my photos to Amazon’s S3 using JungleDisk. I also wrote a column for the Globe about the RIM outage (which is here) and the implications for cloud computing.
As a friend pointed out to me on Twitter this morning — when I described the S3 outage as “another caution flag in the cloud computing race” — these kinds of outages happen all the time with hosting providers (including my blog host) and other remote storage companies, not to mention Internet cables being severed under the ocean and so on. But every time it happens it’s another reminder about the need to maintain multiple redundant backups for the data you care about.
For anyone who’s interested, video of my appearance on TVO’s The Agenda with Steve Paikin is now up at the network’s website, or you can click and watch it below in a popup. As I mentioned in a previous post, I was on last Friday talking about the future of “cloud computing” with Nick Carr of Roughtype (who just came out with a book on the subject), as well as CBC tech commentator Jesse Hirsh and ComputerWorld Canada editor Shane Schick. We talked about some of the benefits and disadvantages, the security issues, whether the Macbook Air makes a good “cloud computer” and some other topics as well. It was a fun show, although Shane apparently didn’t think too much of Jesse’s views on the value of IT administrators.