Bring on the Clouds

For those of you who are more technically-oriented, you’ve been hearing a lot of buzz in the past few years about “the cloud”, “cloud-based computing”, or some other Weather Channel sounding name for companies and services that rely on what is, at its core, distributed computing in its purest form (if your eyes have already glazed over I hereby grant you permission to forgo the rest of the post but if you can stick with me a bit longer I think you’ll be happy that did.)

Cloud-based applications and services can (theoretically) be operated with a lower cost basis because you only pay for the computing cycles, hard disk storage, and physical memory that you use. Have you built an application only for you and your parents? Fine: You’ll probably only pay pennies a day. If you have built the next Facebook, well, I hope you’ve figured out your business plan because you’ll need an awful lot of pennies to pay the bill from Amazon Web Services, Rackspace, or any of the other cloud-based hosting companies that are popping up all over the Internet. I, personally, use AWS to store online back-ups of my family’s digital photos for a minimal monthly charge.

Ben Kepes, who writes for GigaOM, recently posted a couple of articles on the statistical benefits of hosting applications in the cloud and one, in particular, that  highlights some really exciting findings from cloud-based EMR vendors. By looking at aggregate data across four million patient records they were able to identify trends in commonly prescribed medications. Similar studies focused on the link between socioeconomic status, diabetes and body mass index and patients to target in the case of a potential pandemic.

Could these studies be conducted using data gleaned from traditional server-based EMRs? Absolutely. But as I noted previously, well-functioning health information exchanges (HIEs) and regional health information organizations (RIHOs) are still a ways off and are expensive to build. With readily accessible data already in the cloud, however, these obstacles are nonexistent.

Mr. Kepes is right to point out that we still have to overcome the privacy concerns that individuals have about digitizing their health related information(let alone placing that data in the cloud to be studied—even anonymously), but that by showing a real benefit we may be able to convince the skeptics.

Another industry that is, slowly, making a move to the cloud is education. Google, in a shrewd marketing tactic in my opinion, gives away many of its “corporate” products such as Gmail and Google Apps to educational institutions (and hopes that their students continue to use their products long after graduation). There are certainly financial benefits of making such a move, as noted in a recent article from ReadWriteWeb, but the long-term benefits go far beyond just dollars and sense.

By moving applications and services to the cloud, educational institutions are leveraging technology to change the culture they operate in to one that more highly values collaboration and transparency. Mashed-up applications are being created and some educators are even using the tools to create open-source textbooks and tools that can be easily shared between institutions. All of this facilitates the sharing of knowledge while bring down costs to pretty much all involved parties. For cash-strapped schools, this may be a panacea they can’t afford to miss.

I certainly feel that, assuming that proper privacy protections are put in place, the potential benefits of cloud-based computing outweigh almost any privacy concern. Don’t you agree?

UPDATE: From the mouths of babes? Check out How 10 Year Olds Explain Cloud Computing.

UPDATE 2: Hindsight IS always 20-20: Facebook CTO Bret Taylor’s Biggest Mistake? Buying Servers.

(Image source: Cuba Gallery)


  1. Cory Brostowicz says

    Nice article Zach. I’m currently in the process of developing a cloud based solution for my company. We’re a non-risk PPO, and we apply discounts to electronic healthcare claims. To leverage the cloud service architecture, we’re moving our repricing software to Windows Azure.

    There are several cost benefits for making this move, but we’re also gaining stability with virtually no downtime at all. The scalability is also a really nice feature. As your business grows, there is no need to purchase additional hardware, just additional cloud application instances (cpu time).

    I can easily see this technology allowing new businesses to take off. Companies that can adopt this technology early on will be able reduce the cost of maintaining their own hardware, and in return present that cost savings back to their customers. I believe this will allow small companies to compete with the larger corporations, ultimately benefiting the consumer. Great stuff!

    Talk to you soon,

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