Thing 24: Cloud Computing

I decided to round out my last two blog entries by moving on to the intermediate list provided by 23 Things for Archivists. This list has a number of exciting entries, working up to 46 items that librarians and archivists should know about Web 2.0. If nothing else, this list demonstrates the importance of technology in serving contemporary patron needs and making workflows more efficient. Of course, this intermediate list is also a nod to the tremendous time commitment that Web 2.0 tools can require–only two of the topics in the list actually have full entries. Finding the time to implement new technologies and resources can be tricky. Given that stark reminder about time and resources, it seemed only natural to pick up with cloud computing. At its most basic, cloud computing allows users to store and access data and software over the Internet, increasing convenience and decreasing the need for maintenance and technical programming knowledge.

Cloud Computing
The Common Craft video on cloud computing explains that users can access server space, software, and data storage programs that are housed in remote locations. Quite simply, it functions like electricity service in the sense that users often pay for what they use, without having to worry about how the service itself works on the back end. This can free up time and money that would ordinarily go into understanding and maintaining current hardware and software; the benefit as I see it is that users can then focus on creativity and design. It is also obvious that nearly everyone using a computer is working in the cloud these days, without even realizing it. Email access was the most common example of cloud computing used throughout the articles I read, and is one that I never even think about. However, I have several Yahoo email accounts and a Gmail account through USF, none of which I have ever bothered to route through a desktop email client like Outlook. Instead, I access these accounts via the Internet from any computer anywhere and I also receive and read the messages on my Blackberry. This is apparently the essence of The Cloud, in which connecting through a browser allows an uncluttered workflow and data storage–I can have 2 GB of emails in each account–offering access anywhere and saving space on my own hard drive.

Moving beyond the basics of email, I began, as the 23 activities suggested, to think about other ways I already use cloud computing. Social networks were an obvious activity, since all my posts are stored out there in the cloud on some unidentifiable servers. I don’t have to save copies of these items on my own machine because the posts, lists, etc. are archived and managed within those networks. Service such as Flickr and YouTube function the same way since I can store videos and images and access and share these anywhere. Not that I am about to erase all the original files on my computer, but certainly some people do use those services in that manner. Of course, it is worth noting that the possibility does exist for data loss, especially with the aforementioned free services. If Flickr closed down, many people would lose their image archives since transition isn’t always seamless, especially when you are looking at hundreds or thousands of files. Sounds unlikely? Consider the “sunsetting” plans Yahoo has for Delicious, which would eliminate the carefully-chosen web resource lists of individuals and institutions (some of which represent many hours of web curation).

Given this real possibility of data loss, organizations obviously need assurances that any cloud computing will not result in a catastrophic loss at some future date. The Library of Congress and the non-profit DuraSpace addressed this issue several years ago with the DuraCloud pilot program. According to the DuraSpace blog, “to ensure perpetual access, valuable digital materials must be stored in a durable manner. DuraCloud will provide both storage and access services, including content replication and monitoring services that span multiple cloud-storage providers.” In other words, it operates on a model similar to a LOCKSS (Lots of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe) network where multiple identical copies are stored across geographically diverse servers and cross-checked and repaired to insure that each is pristine; a failure of one server does not permanently erase all the data stored there. This is obviously a good solution for institutions looking to store their files, especially those that have significant value, in an archival manner.

Storage is different than access though, and many LOCKSS networks provide only dark storage (backup). DuraCloud also offers access to the materials, which is another important consideration. This prevents organizations from having to maintain an access copy of each document they want to share, which could amount to considerable expense in storage and management. Smaller institutions may not be able to afford the space, and this might limit digital file sharing. However, cloud computing that manages and stores the data as well as offering access makes digital file sharing of collections more affordable and possible (without needing as much internal IT support). The GreenTech section of the TechSoup group also notes that cloud computing in this manner saves on energy and e-waste since many individual organizations do not need to run duplicate hardware–each cloud server is utilized to a higher level of capacity, rather than many low-use servers running.

Collaboration
All of the technical benefits aside, cloud computing makes sharing and collaboration easier. Thinking back to the Flickr and YouTube examples above, working in the cloud enables users to share and in many cases edit the work and open a dialogue around it. Google Docs comes to mind as a major program that allows users to create (or upload existing) presentations, forms, spreadsheets, etc. so that they can be edited from any computer and by multiple users. This has obvious benefits from a workflow perspective. Instead of circulating a master copy and asking people to edit, save, and send it on, multiple users can access the document remotely. This can eliminate confusion over which copy is the “latest” version and make accessing the document easier.

I also began to think about the ease of use that many cloud computing applications promise. Just recently I used Prezi software to create an online presentation. The program is Flash-based, and I have neither the money to purchase Flash nor the time to learn the program at the moment. Prezi, however, is built online and offers visual tools to edit the presentation while the software writes the Flash code in the background. The presentation can be edited and accessed from any computer with an Internet connection and shared publicly via the Prezi website. Much like Google docs, I can also allow multiple users to have editing privileges. There are a few performance issues since building online means that sometimes the website, and thus design efforts, are slow–cloud computing is by no means a flawless concept. However, the benefits and convenience far outweigh the drawbacks.

I recently wrote about Dipity online timeline creation, which is another software program that is run from the cloud. I have also recently used Omeka, which is an online digital library/exhibition creation program. I found that while I was working with the “user-friendly” Greenstone software I was lamenting the fact that it could not be built online. I would have had to set up a server on which to house the library; the computer interface was also glitchy and difficult to use. Omeka, on the other hand, ran from the cloud, allowing uploads right to a hosted space on the Omeka server, design from a web interface, and input of metadata. It was far easier to get a product up and running without IT support at an infrastructure and hardware level. I’m not suggesting that everything should be one-click, but clearly cloud computing does eliminate some of the need for understanding backend knowledge that can get in the way of simply running a program.

The list of cloud applications could go on, but one thing is clear–whether we think about it or not, cloud computing is increasingly a necessary part of digital workflows and will continue to dominate software and storage in the future.

Applications for Information Literacy
The possibilities for information literacy instruction range from providing easy access to online materials to incorporating creation tools into projects to creating collaborative class products. Cloud computing resources such as Google Docs and Prezi could facilitate work on group projects. Twitter discussions could be archived to a blog or webspace using a tool such as Dipity, which would allow users to compile a chronological list of their discussion on a topic; a class record of the discussion could be created using the same timeline tool by setting the search feature to pull Tweets, videos, etc. centered on a common topic. Simply having students tag their posts with a specific search term would allow a search feed to pull those responses and compile a course discussion review in dynamic timeline format. Omeka, which offers free webspace to individuals or institutions could be used to create class exhibitions, with each students contributing documents, images, and other resources. This could be organized around a central theme or broken into categories. Either way, the product would be a searchable display of the achievements of the students. This could also be a resource for instructors to create an exhibition to showcase student achievements (useful for funding and performance reviews.

I have discussed only free software use in this blog, but there are many many more paid access solutions that fall within cloud computing. Undoubtedly a small investment in additional resources would yield even more opportunities to enhance teaching and learning in the digital age.

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