(This article by Amit Naik, an architect at BMC Software, tries to separate out the facts from the hype regarding Apple’s recently announced iCloud offering for the benefit of readers)
Any Apple announcement from new products/services to the Worldwide Wide Developer Conference (WWDC) is often hotly anticipated by the media and the Apple faithful alike. The WWDC 2011 held on June 6th this year was no exception. Steve Jobs (Apple CEO) took the stage to make a whole slew of announcements; most notable among them was iCloud, Apple’s vision of consumer centric cloud services.
Before the ink was even dry on the announcement, iCloud began to be touted as a Windows Killer , as a copy of Android Services, as the next big thing, attacked as not even having to do anything with cloud computing and even got Apple sued. By time all is said and done, gallons more ink will have flowed (or hundreds more blog posts will have been created) regarding iCloud. This post is an effort to separate the Facts from the Hype and provide some overall context on the implications of iCloud in different areas.
What is iCloud?
iCloud is Apple’s vision of a omnipresent cloud connection in all Apple devices that will seamlessly act as a sort of a “super synch” for different Apple applications. However it has a lot more features than just a remote storage mechanism such as DropBox. Let us look at this in a bit more detail:
(Note that as of today, iCloud is in private beta. The full public release has rather amorphously been defined as “in the Fall”. So everything that is known about iCloud is in the form of press releases from Apple/Developers given early access to it.)
There are 9 default services or (Apps) in the free version of iCloud:
Contacts – Your contacts will be synced to the cloud and shared between all of your devices.
Calendars – Calendars in the cloud supports calendars in the cloud, shared calendars and calendars pushed to all of your devices.
Mail – The new Mail service will include an @me.com account.
iBooks – your book purchases and places are stored across your devices.
Backup – Daily backups of your apps, music, camera roll, app data and more over WiFi.
Documents in the Cloud – You can download your documents, and edit it on multiple devices.
App Store – Your apps can be downloaded right to your new devices.
Photo Steam – A new built in feature will move your photos to the cloud so that you can easily share them with others on any Apple Device.
iTunes in the Cloud – Shows you all your songs, albums and artists you have purchased and download to your device. These are limited to only items purchased from iTunes to begin with.
Each iCloud consumer will be given a free 5GB of storage capacity for their mail, documents, and back-ups. A really interesting feature of the service is that for music, apps and books purchased from Apple, and the storage required by Photo Stream doesn’t count towards this 5GB total.
For the PhotoStream service, Apple will store the latest 1000 photos long-term while every new photo taken from any device will be stored for 30 days.
Apple really seems to be shooting for two things with iCloud:
- Ubiquity: All iPods, iPhones, iPads that can be upgraded to iOS 5 and all Macs (MacBooks, and Desktops) with OS X Lion will be able to avail of iCloud. This will be at least tens of millions of users if not more. There will also be a Windows client (Windows 7 and up no XP support) that will support iCloud on non Apple desktops.
- Simplicity: As presented, the iCloud service looks like it falls into the “Just works” category with minimal user meddling. If Apple can really pull-off this vision the simplicity would be the real killer feature of the service.
Is it cloud computing?
In a rather grumpy post Carl Brooks wrote: “Apple iCloud is not cloud computing.” He went to deride as “Nothing but Streaming Media”. (He has since updated his post to clarify that it has more capabilities).
Let us address this issue “Is Apple iCloud cloud computing?”
YES it most certainly is cloud computing.
Take a look at the figure that I created recently that shows a simplified cloud computing stack.
iCloud clearly fits in the top two layers – SaaS and the Client layer.
However there are those that define cloud computing more narrowly as “On-demand Infrastructure (IaaS) or Platform as a Service” in which case, No, iCloud is not strictly cloud computing from this angle. Keep in mind that by now the term “Cloud Computing” or “Cloud” has become so diluted as to be essentially meaningless, so the question raised is in-fact a very relevant one.
What are the challenges Apple faces?
The first and biggest challenge that Apple faces to iCloud is history. This is the fourth time Apple has tried its hand at internet services after failing in its three previous attempts. It first launched iTools way back in 2000 followed by .Mac and its most recent attempt was MobileMe. All the previous attempts were duds and Steve Jobs Apple CEO even admitted it on stage when he was announcing iCloud, calling MobileMe “not our finest hour”. The problem is rather simple – if used correctly the service should fade into the background and be seamless – but Apple is a master at splashy well-designed hardware and “just works”, well thought-thru software, neither of which directly align with iCloud. So the trick of getting it right will all be in the execution.
The second and somewhat lesser problem might be that Apple has underestimated the actual amount of data that its consumers will want to push thru iCloud. Steve Jobs took some pains to address this issue by showing slides with pictures of huge data centers at WWDC (Screen grabs):
And sleek next-gen hardware:
Apple is also aggressively investing in building datacenters, so, time alone will tell on this front.
Who is the competition?
Apple is essentially in a three horse race at this point with Consumer Cloud Services. The first and most obvious competitor is Google.
Google’s Android OS has provided much of the functionality of iCloud, namely
GMail and the related contact manager; Google Calendar, Google Docs, where you can view, edit and collaborate on Office-style documents, Picasa for images, Google Books and Google Music, and the Android AppStore.
In a way, iCloud is complete validation of Google’s strategy of Cloud hosted data and consumers with multiple endpoints such as Android based cell phones and Chrome Books. The one difference is that Apple touts “Apps” as the consumption medium of choice Google focuses on the browser as the ultimate medium of consumption. Google and Apple are now locked in bitter fight for consumer’s data and both are using the Cloud as the weapon of choice.
The Second challenger is the dark horse Amazon. Amazon has become the de-facto leader in the “traditional” Cloud computing space. It’s EC2 and other Amazon Web Services (AWS) offerings are the leaders in the IaaS space. What is not as well known is that it is also quietly ramping up its consumer cloud services strategy. The recently announced Cloud drive is just the start with rumored plans for Amazon branded Tablets, Amazon will be in a position to challenge Apple all across the cloud stack for dominance.
The biggest consumer name missing from the list? Microsoft. It was late to the Tablet space after Apple revitalized it with the launch of the iPad. It was unsuccessful in the mobile phone space until its recent moves towards Windows 7 based phones. This is the challenge it must now confront to be relevant again in the Consumer cloud services space.
What are the likely implications?
At the launch of the iPad 2, Steve Jobs had famously declared that we are in the Post-PC era, implying that consumers had moved on from PCs and were ready to embrace more portable devices as their main computers. The iCloud vision would seem to make that a reality.
Earlier, whenever you purchased an iPhone/iPad, the very first thing the device would prompt you to do was sync with iTunes on your PC/Mac. With iCloud this will no longer happen, just type-in your credentials and you are synched with all your data and apps – truly a Post-PC experience.
Another obvious result of this announcement is a phenomenon I like to term “Consumerization of the Cloud”. This announcement is likely to associate the words “cloud computing” with Apple in a very sticky way in the minds of regular (non-tech) consumers. The next time one of us says we work in cloud computing, one sure question is “Is that like the Apple iCloud thing?” As if the cloud hype was not high enough already, this announcement has undoubtedly pushed it to stratospheric (cloudy) levels. However the positive side of this is that Cloud Computing will now become much more main stream than ever before.
About the Author – Amit Naik
Amit Naik works as an Architect with BMC Software. He builds performant cloud solutions with a focus on heterogeneity and monitoring across different virtualization and provisioning vendors in the cloud computing space. His main focus is the Architecture and Design of BMC solutions with emphasis on building highly-scalable systems with REST and other SOA interfaces.
Amit has a Bachelor’s degree from College of Engineering Pune and a Master’s degree from Purdue Univ., West Lafayette. He has more than 15 years of experience in the IT industry, much of it in the USA, across a variety of Technical and Techno-Managerial roles.