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Practical RPG: Data in the Cloud, Part 1

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The cloud has become ever more ubiquitous, but with so many choices it's hard to know what fits your business; this article will help you begin to sort through things.


Cloud-based data is a huge topic. Nowadays, you can find everything in the cloud, from simple file storage to entire applications. Software-as-a-service (SAAS) has mushroomed and morphed into a plethora of virtual services. The problem with such a variety is trying to identify which services and providers make the most sense in your environment. This is the first in a series of articles that will start you on that journey.

Categorizing the CloudFirst Cut

The first step in identifying the cloud is just to categorize the services. To that end, I'm going to create an initial partition between databases in the cloud and file-sharing in the cloud. The former is actually the newer of the two, and delving into the topic in depth will require us to lay some informational groundwork. We'll get to that in the next article, but in the meantime I'll give you a little homework: you can search for the term NoSQL and also compare the two concepts of ACID (Atomicity, Consistency, Isolation, Durability) and BASE (Basically Available, Soft state, Eventual consistency).


Leaving databases in the cloud for another day allows us to focus on the older and more mature technology of cloud file storage. In reality, cloud storage has been with us for a very, very long time and in some ways predates the Internet, at least the public-facing portion we're all familiar with. Back in the '70s, the first computerized bulletin board system, CBBS, came online. Being as I am a product of the Chicago suburbs, it's always been a point of (obscure and extremely nerdish, Big Bang Theory level) pride for me that this system originated in Chicago and that I was one of the first users. And while this first machine was primarily just an online forum, the concept quickly expanded to larger architecture with more capabilities, including file storage, file transfer, and one of the first forms of distributed email (for a little more history, check out Fidonet).


Of course, ancient history is not the topic of today's article. But it does provide the foundation for the modern applications of data storage in the sky, which itself can be broken down into categories more or less along functional lines. Let's review them.


First are the almost purely personal services, which include photo-sharing and music-streaming. As with most of these categories, my classification is somewhat arbitrary. For example, an argument can be made for using a photo-sharing facility to host the images for your corporate website. Offsite image hosting has been around for a long time; you've almost certainly visited a number of websites where the images are served by Akamai servers (they claim to serve as much as 30% of all Internet traffic). Using such a service can provide a number of benefitsfrom making it easy to maintain your images to reducing your bandwidth requirements. While you may not want to host your primary page graphics on a separate server, it might make business sense to offload things like catalog images. Once you've decided to go that route, it’s not unreasonable to look into solutions like Flickr or Photobucket, although you may then worry about things like guaranteed service and security. Which tool fits best depends on your usage requirements.


File-sharing and syncing are areas that easily cross the boundaries between personal and business. I've used file-sharing for everything from Cub Scouts to contract programming, and the tool fits all of those needs. While I personally like Dropbox, others exist either with more bells and whistlesSugarSync is a good exampleor more barebones, like MediaFire. The potential advantage of file-sharing utilities, especially the more powerful ones, is that you can relatively easily integrate them into your business processes. Without a lot of work, you can create a folder that will automatically copy data from the cloud to a more local drive. Either by using the IFS or by taking advantage of QNTC, you can then monitor that folder and invoke jobs on the IBM i to process the files. Add to that the email interface some offerings provide and you suddenly have a way to, for example, enter orders via email. This has some serious possibilities for business processing.


An interesting niche service that ties in here is large-file transmission. More and more companies use email as a step in a formal business process, using a formatted attachment of some type (CSV, for example, or XML) to send information from one point to another. This can substantially reduce costs associated with the VANs (Value Added Networks) of EDI. However, one of the sticking points with email is the limitation on attachment sizes. These are somewhat arbitrary and subject to change without notice; once you hit those limits, you're dead in the water (or scrambling to FTP something). Several companies provide services specifically designed to transfer large files, usually in a store-and-forward type of arrangement in which you store the file on the server and then send a URL to your partners to allow them to retrieve the file. For an example of this type of service, take a look at SendThisFile, but many others are available.


Online backup is another cloud facility that crosses the home/business barrier. An older and more mature technology, online backups have been around for quite some time. You've probably heard of some of the online backup vendors such as Carbonite, but security products like Symantec also tend to provide at least some nominal amount of online backup capability with increased storage as an upsell.


The last cloud service in my list is perhaps the most business-oriented: collaboration. While not typically part of an automated business process, cloud collaboration is increasingly used during planning and decision-making. This actually is shaping up to be one of the big battlefields of the decade. In one corner you have Microsoft; in the other you have Google. Google Docs is free and ties you to the Google format. That's not necessarily a bad thing, and the price is right. Office 365, on the other hand, costs $100 a year and gives you both cloud access to all of the Office Suite (the big one, which includes Outlook, Publisher, and Access) and also downloads to up to five devices! Not surprisingly, the devices have to be Windows (and specifically Windows 7 or above) or Mac OS X, but if that's not a problem for you, then $20 per year per device is a pretty amazing deal.


That's it for your introduction to file-level storage in the sky. Next we'll dive into the concept of cloud databases, and then we can start working through some more real-world examples of how these technologies can improve your business processes.


Joe Pluta

Joe Pluta is the founder and chief architect of Pluta Brothers Design, Inc. He has been extending the IBM midrange since the days of the IBM System/3. Joe uses WebSphere extensively, especially as the base for PSC/400, the only product that can move your legacy systems to the Web using simple green-screen commands. He has written several books, including Developing Web 2.0 Applications with EGL for IBM i, E-Deployment: The Fastest Path to the Web, Eclipse: Step by Step, and WDSC: Step by Step. Joe performs onsite mentoring and speaks at user groups around the country. You can reach him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

MC Press books written by Joe Pluta available now on the MC Press Bookstore.

Developing Web 2.0 Applications with EGL for IBM i Developing Web 2.0 Applications with EGL for IBM i
Joe Pluta introduces you to EGL Rich UI and IBM’s Rational Developer for the IBM i platform.
List Price $39.95

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WDSC: Step by Step WDSC: Step by Step
Discover incredibly powerful WDSC with this easy-to-understand yet thorough introduction.
List Price $74.95

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Eclipse: Step by Step Eclipse: Step by Step
Quickly get up to speed and productivity using Eclipse.
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