Monthly Archives: December 2010

techpubs tools

Why You Might Care about the Cloud

Talk about clouds, hybrid clouds, private clouds, and suddenly throw in software as a service and platform as a service, and you might be wondering, what does it mean? Whoa double rainbow, as some would say.

I wanted to put some perspective on the cloud for technical communicators. I’ve had a great guest blogger post from Ynema Mangum about cloud computing in the past titled, Clearing the Air on Cloud, but when I saw Ellis Pratt tweet about using the cloud for one of his projects, I followed up with him to learn more. Here’s an interview with Ellis Pratt of Cherryleaf about his recent experiences with cloud computing.

Q1: Could you describe the project when you recently used a cloud computing environment?

We’ve created a report publishing system, based on Confluence for a client. The reports are fire risk assessment reports, so they want the ability to complete the reports “on the road”.

Q2. What compelled you (or required) the use of virtual computers available on a network for the project?

We put a version of the prototype in the cloud for a number of reasons:

  • The client’s IT person hasn’t yet installed Confluence on their Virtual Private Network (VPN), so to keep the project rolling along, we created a version in the cloud that they could access and review the prototype of the system.
  • We’d also outlined in our proposal how they could host the system in the cloud instead of on their VPN, so it gave us the opportunity to show them what it would mean for the report writers.
  • Our own VPN can be slow at time and holds sensitive data, so it was an excuse to test out the potential of a hosted application server for our own use.
  • There may be cases in the future where clients would want to access a documentation solution hosted by us, so we wanted to research the possibilities and potential.

It was prompted by:

  • A chat I had at a 4Networking (business networking) meeting with a software developer, who said how cheap it was to create a application server these days. We’d looked at it about 6 months ago (when we put our file storage in the cloud), but had found it a bit too pricey. The prices have seem to have come down.
  • A blog on the Confluence blog about how you can turn an application server on and off, so you’re only paying for it when you need it.
There was also an underlying interest. We’ve been working on making it possible to work away from the office for longer periods of time. There’s a quite a difference between working off-site for a day and working off-site for a month.

Q3. Have you seen the Microsoft TV ads with the line “To the Cloud” (link)? What’s your reaction to that type of consumer messaging about the cloud?

Those adverts haven’t been running in the UK, as far as I am aware. The message seems to be the cloud is for when you’re up against a deadline and when you want to be cool. I suspect its aim is to get  non-technical people to associate the word “cloud” with Microsoft, so they go to the Microsoft site if and when they want to investigate what “the cloud” is.

It doesn’t tell you what the cloud is. Collaboration can be done on a LAN, a VPN and a wiki, so it doesn’t tell you how it differs from those options. I guess the key message to the consumer market is: work on any computer, anywhere you like. I’d like them to make some comparison to Google mail (or Hotmail), as many people will have experience of that.

Q4. For tech comm, do you think relevance to cloud computing lies in collaboration (access to more people and networks) or scale (access to more computing power) or another aspect?

I’d say collaboration, bypassing the IT dept (!) and the ability to work from home.

Q5. What’s a great way to introduce cloud computing to technical writers? How do you make it relevant?

I’d suggest real-time collaboration, the ability to work from anywhere, the ability to have a fast system, the ability to test software among a group, user generated content and the ability to make stuff web accessible in a way that doesn’t put any company-critical stuff at risk.

Q6. Do you agree with the statement “cloud computing is becoming “the 21st century equivalent of the printing press” from Nicholas Carr’s blog entry, The cloud press?

No, I believe collaborative authoring/cognitive surplus/wikis are the 21st century equivalent of the printing press – a low cost way to get more people to write (and read) more quickly.

The article does raise the Wikileaks/Amazon issue. Putting the rights and wrongs of Wikileaks aside, Amazon’s actions do show that cloud providers can terminate their service to you in an instant, if they choose to. Although it’s unlikely that many of us will host any thing as contentious as Wikileaks, it will lead people to ask, what would happen if they did pull the plug on us? There are also national laws to consider around data protection – EU laws, the Patriot act etc . We have our cloud data hosted in the European Union, for example.

Q7. How does cloud computing affect tech comm delivery?

It makes user generated content and a more distributed authoring team more possible. It makes it easier to get contractors to use your software.

It means we can do more Webby things with documentation.

The biggest challenge we faced was setting up the server. You can end up in this no-mans land between the hosting service and the application vendor where there’s no-one document telling you how to install the software in the cloud. It’s easier with Windows Server than with Linux, but then you’ll be paying more for your hosting.

Thanks Ellis for sharing your perspective and experiences!