Over the last week or so, I've been exploring cloud computing. My basic thesis through this series has been that as the economy sours--it's darn close to curdling--cloud computing gives you access to sophisticated applications without expensive hardware.

Sounds like a smart play on the face of it, but when Richard Stallman, the Dean of the free software movement weighs in that it's actually stupid, it's going to make you stand up and take notice. So to get yet another view on all of this, I had a chat with Rishi Chandra, the product manager for Google Docs Enterprise.

Perception Versus Reality

Not surprisingly Chandra has a polar opposite view of cloud computing from Richard Stallman. Google is one of the preeminent cloud vendors, so that's hardly surprising. In fact, Chandra had quite a bit to say on the subject and he believes that many of the fears of cloud computing are related more to perception than reality, a misplaced belief that your data is less secure, less accessible and less available. He would argue in fact, that your data is more secure, and as for ownership, well in Chandra's view, the data belongs to you and you can always take your ball and go home if you're not happy with the service.

Simpler Collaboration Model

Chandra says the obvious value argument for Cloud Computing is the one that I've been making, it costs less. "I think it's a well understood fact, and there is plenty of data out there to support, that cloud offerings are more cost-effective and easier and cheaper to deploy." But Chandra says another element that sometimes gets lost in the Cloud Computing discussion is the productivity aspect of it. "Once you're data is in stored in the cloud, it really enables a bunch of use cases you never had before."

What he means is that many companies use email today as the chief means of collaboration and that can work with a couple of people, but the more people you collaborate with, Chandra says, the messier and more unwieldy the process becomes. Cloud computing can help by allowing multiple people to work on a document at the same time enabling real-time collaboration. "It changes the paradigm about how people work together," he says.

Does Going to the Cloud Mean You're Crazy?

When it comes to Gmail the chief concern and complaint are the ads that appear along side the mail. They relate to the content of the email, which Chandra says, often leads to the mistaken belief that Google is reading your email. In reality an algorithm reads your email and places the ads. It would be impossible for a human to keep up. In fact, the business version of Gmail doesn't even have ads, but consumers are free to bypass the Gmail interface and download the email using the iMap feature. What's more, Chandra says, every single Google application has an API that lets you programatically take out the data.

If you're worried about data ownership he says that individuals and businesses own the data, not Google, and they are working to make it as easy as possible to remove data from Google programs, whether for you use in other business processes or because you are no longer happy with the service. Every program has an export method today.

It's a Matter of Trust

Some readers brought up the trust factor after the failure of several financial institutions last month, but Chandra doesn't necessarily think that's a fair comparison. But he admits you have to trust your Cloud vendor. "There is a level of trust you have to have with your vendor. And it's imperative for the cloud vendor to meet that level of trust," Chandra says.

Another reader questioned the wisdom of moving sensitive data over the internet. Chandra says most companies are doing that today whether they embrace Cloud Computing or not. "If you encrypt data as it moves through the pipes," he says, " then it's secure." He says Google has to answer questions about its security model every day and are very comfortable doing it. They even have a third party service-SAS 70--that monitors and audits Google's security to be sure it's tight.

In the end, if you believe Cloud Computing is stupid and naive as Stallman does, you aren't going to participate, but the fact is more and more vendors are offering a cloud option. Many companies and consumers are using cloud services. You definitely want to be careful, and you want to make sure you can get at your own data. Cloud computing may not be for everybody in every situation, but it's a viable model and it's worth exploring, especially with the looming economic winter.

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