Martin White reviews a collection of essays on cloud computing that attempts to clarify the technology and its applications for librarians and information professionals.
I will admit to having read very little in the way of fiction writing over the last half-century though perhaps as a chemist by training I do enjoy science fiction from authors such as Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov and Fred Hoyle. All were distinguished scientists, none more so than Fred Hoyle, who was Plumian Professor of Astronomy and Experimental Philosophy at the University of Cambridge.
On Clouds and Crystal Balls
Hoyle came to fame as the author of A for Andromeda, but in my opinion his best work is The Black Cloud. The Cloud approaches Earth as it seeks to recharge its energy supplies from the Sun before heading off back into the Universe. The hero, Kingsley (Hoyle in disguise) is able to communicate digitally with the Cloud and learns about many of the secrets of the Universe before dying from, in effect, information overload.
In the case of cloud computing there is certainly information overload at the present time, with books, reports and conferences in profusion. Most of them are targeted at senior IT managers in large organisations, and tend to assume a high level of technical knowledge. However cloud services are now the way in which many small businesses operate and I have been using Microsoft Office 365 for some time now without ever thinking about the novelty of using a cloud service for a nominal monthly fee. In the same way my Apple iPad works very happily with Apple iCloud.
By further way of introduction, I’ve spent much of my career trying to explain technologies to business executives as well as forecasting the future development of technologies, neither with much success. Business executives are not really interested in how the technology works, but are very interested in what it can do to help them achieve their own objectives. Forecasting technologies is a nightmare, because the pace of development is such that by the time the forecast is published it is already out of date. So with all this experience I felt reasonably well qualified to offer to review this book.
When Is a Cloud Not a Cloud?
According to the Editors, this book is meant to help readers understand more about cloud computing in general in easy-to-understand terms and to explain cloud computing as it pertains to the library community. That seems like a good plan, though implicit in this objective is the notion that the library community needs to be spoon-fed technology. Then they go on to state that they are defining cloud computing as any use of remote computing power accessed through the Internet as a kind of cloud computing that will be of interest to librarians. Now I have a problem, as that definition includes Google and Bing and many other services. Do I see some cumulonimbus thunder clouds on the horizon?
In Chapter 2 there is the important statement that SaaS (Software as a Service), PasS (Platform as a Service) and IaaS (Infrastructure as a Service) are all components of cloud services but just because a service is delivered by one of these components does not mean that it is a cloud-based service. The core problem with this book is that few of the authors understand that statement.
‘Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres’
This was the first Latin sentence I learned, and this book, like Gaul, is divided into three parts. Part 1 deals with General Concerns (you can read mine below), Part 2 with Technologies and Part 3 with Case Studies. The first two chapters are excellent. Rosalyn Metz and H. Frank Cervone really know what they are writing about and do so with style. However I would have liked to have seen a diagram of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) model of cloud computing because the descriptions of it in these two chapters get a little convoluted at times. Chapters 4 and 5 take a user perspective and are quite well written but from that point onwards the book loses the plot. Perhaps one of the reasons for the lack of focus of the book and of the individual chapters is that eight of the twenty chapters have more than one author! This is truly a multi-author title. Facet Publishing has an excellent track record of publishing multi-author books  but this book was originally published by the Library and Information Technology Association, a division of the American Library Association.
Another problem is that Part 1 addresses General Concerns and Part 2 covers Technologies. The overlap is quite substantial because the general concerns about cloud computing are largely technology-related, and, as already mentioned, the opening chapters are excellent surveys of cloud technology. As a result there is a lot of duplication of content. The Editors needed to have taken a much firmer line with the contributors, but also thought more carefully about the structure of the book.
A good example is given by Chapter 12, SharePoint Strategies for Establishing a Powerful Library Intranet. This shows all the signs of the Editors wanting to have a chapter on SharePoint at any cost. As a result the chapter is about SharePoint, but not from a cloud perspective, and there is little evidence that the authors have actually carried out a cloud implementation.
Part 3 appears to offer eight case studies. One of these is an ill-fated attempt to implement a free web-conferencing solution and another is a six-page account of implementing Google Calendar. The common problem with all these case studies is that there is no analysis of why a cloud-based solution was chosen over a locally hosted or SaaS solution. Indeed Chapter 20 describes the use of VoiceThread which is described both as a cloud service and SaaS. SaaS services deliver applications as a utility and in my view cloud services deliver computing as a utility. There is a difference, and on its Web site VoiceThread makes no mention of it being a cloud service.
I am also disappointed, though not surprised, that not one of the case studies (other than one with a passing reference to New Zealand) is based outside North America. This is very disappointing given the level of cloud activity in the UK with organisations such as Capita and Eduserv. Another reason why a US-centric view of cloud computing is limiting is that in the EU issues of data privacy and cloud computing are very complex. In this book there are three passing references to the Patriot Act but clearly no understanding of the challenges that cloud service providers and users face in Europe, especially if they operate 24/7 follow-the-sun services.
Cloud computing is big business and very important business, and the potential for the library community to manage its costs and deliver innovative services is immense. This is especially the case with mobile applications, which are all but ignored in this book outside a paper from Karen Coombs of OCLC. I’m disappointed with the quality of many of the chapters, the amount of duplication and the lack of focus.
My main concern is that the view of the Editors and authors is that library and information professionals cannot cope with technology and need to have books like this to help them make sense of a technology and its applications. It may be a result of the quality of LIS courses in the UK and the activities of JISC and other organisations in this sector, but the library and information professionals I know are well ahead of this book in understanding the benefits and challenges of cloud computing, and also understand that service offerings are going to change on a daily basis. For certain they have the skills to track down, evaluate and capitalise on developments in cloud technology and its role in developing new library services.
If someone gives you this book then do read the first few chapters but I really cannot recommend it as a way of getting started in cloud computing.
- ‘…. and I’ll start this review by congratulating Facet on recognising the need to publish in the IR/search sector. Normally my heart sinks when I begin to read a book that is a set of contributions by individual authors, but in this case the editors have welded the contributions together so well that it reads as though it was written by a single author.’ Martin White. "Book Review: Innovations in Information Retrieval". March 2012, Ariadne Issue 68 http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue68/white-rvw/
Martin White has been tracking developments in technology since the late 1970s, initially in electronic publishing in the days of videotext and laser discs. He is the author of three books on content management and search technologies and is just completing a book for O’Reilly Media on enterprise search. He has been a Visiting Professor at the iSchool, University of Sheffield, since 2002 and is Chair of the eContent Committee of the Royal Society of Chemistry.