What is Cloud Computing?

The cloud is the term for the myriad of servers and other computers, often located in enormous data centers, that power the Internet. New cloud applications harness the unused resources of these computers to distribute applications, storage, and even processing power to users in ways that are increasingly useful, low cost, and ubiquitous. Applications like Gmail use the cloud as their platform, in the way that programs on a desktop computer use that single computer as a platform. Cloud-based applications use storage space and computing resources from many available machines as needed. “The cloud” denotes any group of computers used in this way. Improved infrastructure has made the cloud robust and reliable; as usage grows, the cloud is fundamentally changing our notions of computing and communication.

Many emerging technologies are supported in some way by the cloud: collaborative environments and tools like Ning, PageFlakes, Voicethread, and Google Apps are cloud applications. A wide variety of online communication tools are supported by cloud resources and many, many personal web tools are cloud-based. Data storage is cheap in these environments — pennies per gigabyte — so cheap that it is often provided in surprising quantities for free. Specialized applications like Flickr and YouTube provide options for hosting and sharing media; tools for creating multimedia projects, like Prezi and Vuvox, live in the cloud; and most social platforms, including Facebook, do as well. To the end user, the cloud is invisible, and the technology that supports the applications does not matter — the fact that the applications are always available, no matter what device is used to access them, is key.

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(1) How might this technology be relevant to the museums you know best?

The success of collecting institutions rests squarely on the ability of museums to share knowledge of collections and exhibitions and to communicate basic information about the physical space (hours, tickets, programs, accessibility, etc.) with a variety of audiences. The advantage of cloud-computing tools and applications is increased storage capacities allow museums to make large amounts of information, images, and the tools to manipulate this information, available to staff and audiences 24/7
  • There's a significant difference between cloud "applications" like those mentioned above, and cloud "computing" which focuses more on the scalability and parallel processing opportunities present by running on an abstract computing platform... Amazon's Web Services, RightScale, Mosso, etc... should be included in this class as well. Museums will soon take advantage of the scalability of these resources for image processing / storage / content delivery networks and multi-threaded infrastructure services. (i.e. how do we effectively deliver our content to asia and the south pacific when many museum's hosts rich media content from their local machine rooms) (i.e. how can we process massive amount of data in real-time to better service audience needs? - automated semantic processing / natural language processing of search data / concept mapping and context relations from tagging and interaction) - rob.stein rob.stein Apr 30, 2010

  • The ability of the cloud to provide computing power and storage of data provides the depth of information required to make a fully immersible museum visit experience.- david.dean david.dean May 1, 2010

  • Cloud-based computing can also provide the opportunity to easily clone, share and standardize instances of open-source museum applications (CMS, DAMS, etc.), potentially reducing the technical requirements for infrastructure, installation and support.- scott.sayre scott.sayre May 2, 2010
  • I think one of the biggest impacts cloud computing has on museums is that it lowers the costs and therefore the risks for entering into projects that may need significant space and/or computing power. With less of a need for huge investments in IT infrastructure to support these types of projects, cloud computing should allow museums to be more experimental and to easily collaborate. ArtBabble's implementation is a great example of cloud computing usage to sustain a project. - liz.neely liz.neely May 2, 2010
  • I agree with the points above. And as institutions with even greater security issues than museums move their content into the cloud, it also becomes an easier idea to "sell" to an institution. Whereas previously, larger museums like MoMA put a significant amount of resources towards purchasing and managing a network of servers, by moving to the cloud, those resources can be shifted to other, more creative and outward-facing areas.- allegra.burnette allegra.burnette May 3, 2010

(2) What themes are missing from the above description that you think are important?

  • A few points in one - I would like to see some examples of how museums use the cloud to deliver information to both a visitor and remote visitor. As the robustness of infrastructure improves we are moving slowly away from delivering information on stand alone machines in galleries. Within museums we have had to deal with slower than industry take-up of technologies whilst out IT dept catch-up and deploy, this is not a bad thing and has allowed more of us to see the results of others with big money testing the environment before investigating the use of the bits that are relevant.- eric.bates eric.bates May 4, 2010
  • Storing data in the cloud raises some challenging questions about who "memory institutions" should trust with their bits over the long term. Some institutions such as the Beeld en Geluid in the Netherlands are eschewing cloud storage because they feel they need absolute stewardship of their data... - michael.edson michael.edson May 4, 2010
  • Our thinking about the cloud is often constrained to thinking about it as a big abstracted storage and/or processing environment - - just a big computer that somebody else owns. Tim O'Reilly has, for years, been asking us to think about the cloud as a place where we can put real time sensing, mobile data gathering/entry, huge data stores, and algorithms together to make powerful new things happen. Institutions need to start cultivating their data sets and data skills with an eye towards what this is all going to look like a few years from now... It may be that museum data, in this environment, becomes critically important to somebody unexpected. (I think also connected to "the cloud" is the read/write web and the whole idea of API's - - an API mindset rather than a hand-tooled single purpose relational database mindset to information. It's gonna get freaky!) - michael.edson michael.edson May 4, 2010 - ninmah ninmah May 5, 2010
  • This is a highly disruptive technology for the IT department itself and, I predict, will begin a fundamental change in the nature of the IT department within organisations. With non-differentiating IT services becoming utility the IT department will need to reposition itself much more in relationship management, both internally and supplier management. An increased focus will be on weaving external services together seamlessly, providing secure and simple authentication services, and ensuring the organisations intellectual property is protected appropriately through an understanding of international data law and appropriate backup and data retrieval policies. The accessibility of these technologies to individual staff members will increasingly tempt client departments to contract directly with an external supplier, seeing this as easier than working with the IT Department. This could result in the diffusion of organisational data. IT departments must become 'professional colleagues' and position themselves and the preferred partner or risk becoming irrelevant. The days of the IT technician who sits in a darkened room within an organisation is limited as those deep technical skills move into the cloud and relationship becomes all. - sara.winmill sara.winmill May 10, 2010

(3) What do you see as the potential impact of this technology on education and interpretation in museums?

  • Big decisions here about long term stewardship of bits - michael.edson michael.edson Apr 30, 2010
  • in order to combine several technologies to create a fully immersive augmented experience for a museum visit, the cloud is necessary for providing the depth of computing power and data to make such an environment possible. The wealth of applications and resources available via the Internet make an augmented experience possible, but most museums do not have, nor can afford, the computing or staff resources necessary to create or contain it. The cloud basically allows outsourcing of such resources at affordable costs to make such an experience feasible.- david.dean david.dean May 1, 2010
  • Cloud computing allows museums with lesser resources to have access to the same computing power as those museums who formerly had their own network teams and internal hosting. It then becomes about the ideas and the applications rather than the horsepower. - allegra.burnette allegra.burnette May 3, 2010
  • Not all museums have the large infrastructure of the major names and cloud computing in its various forms has the potential to liberate the funds of the small museums. There is a need for better and simpler tools to allow more to take part in something that we are all using in some shape or form in our day to day communications. The use of cloud applications will have a big impact on education and museums, the sharing of information both from and to the classroom whilst visiting will become a natural step. 1 million iPads and countless millions of smartphones and iTouch/iPhones using cloud applications such as Google Apps, flickr, facebook are driving information into the clouds and beyond. User demand will be catered for by the commercial world and will also drive what we do in the museum and education world and we need to respond as quickly as we can. - eric.bates eric.bates May 4, 2010

(4) Do you have or know of a project working in this area?

  • ArtBabble, from the Indianapolis Museum of Art, is a primary example. Rob can obviously speak to this more, but one element that was smart about this is that by hosting this site on Amazon, they are paying based on the usage. If it's successful, they pay more. That also means that there isn't a barrier to try new things and see what sticks.- allegra.burnette allegra.burnette May 3, 2010

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