Caution: The Cloud Can Be Tricky (and Other Thoughts)

abstract tech_450x300This post has a subtitle, which is “Why AV Pros Have to Be Twice the IT Pros That IT Pros Have to Be.” I’ll explain as we go. As for the cloud….

I recently spent a couple months researching and writing a paper about cloud computing. Not to belabor what you may already know, but cloud computing refers to an IT model in which resources (programs, data, infrastructure) exist elsewhere and users access them over a network. There’s a lot more to it, but let’s leave it at that. And let’s agree that “the cloud” has entered the lexicon of professional AV, most prominently as it pertains to videoconferencing.

Anyway, in doing my research on cloud computing, I pledged to live the cloud. Everything for my paper lived in the cloud, as did all my audio, video, and other media. And they didn’t just live in the cloud — storing gigabytes offsite is a no-brainer. I experienced them all in the cloud — my music, TV shows, New Yorker subscription, computing applications. I bought a Chromebook, which is a stripped-down laptop that holds virtually nothing, and carried around my tablet. Each offers features for offline experience, but basically, if I didn’t have a network connection, I wasn’t experiencing much of anything.

Long story short: Forget the fact that it takes time for a control-freak like me to get used to the feeling of not controlling any of his content (it’s all in the cloud), and that we still don’t live in a world of ubiquitous network connections, the cloud didn’t always work. My Chromebook allowed me to work on- and offline, synching data as connections were available. So imagine my horror on a trans-Atlantic flight when for some reason, which I never understood, my offline data in no way reflected hours of recent work. Then there was a time at my local library when, despite a strong signal and confirmed network connection, certain cloud apps would not synch.

Throughout this period, there were times when I couldn’t find music I knew I’d bought and stored in the cloud, video that repeatedly stopped and started, and issues of the New Yorker I was told I had to buy when I didn’t have to buy them (I’ve been a subscriber for more than a decade). Short of spending time on the phone with technicians whom I may or may not have been able to connect with in the first place, I could never say for sure what caused any of my problems. I know enough about IT systems to say generally what probably went wrong in each case (including user error), but as all of us have been trained to do in the computer age, I simply muttered under my breath, refreshed or rebooted, and settled.

To be clear, even the most devout cloud propagandists acknowledge you don’t use it for everything. One caveat that many of them give is that if whatever system you’re using now works well and meets your needs (cost, communication, productivity, etc. needs), then leave it alone.

Things that do make sense in the cloud:

  • High-performance computing. Need lots of processors to help map the human genome or render an animated video? Don’t buy ’em; rent ’em in the cloud.
  • Software development. Want to write software applications quickly? It makes a ton of sense to do it in the cloud.
  • Storage. See above re: no-brainers. The cloud is one gigantic disk. Don’t buy a terabyte hard drive when you can rent the 478 gigabytes you actually need.
  • Email. Like storage, email is a total commodity that cloud providers handle well — and their systems are probably more secure than yours!
  • Cross-platform videoconferencing. It was folly to think everybody who wanted to place video calls would use the same technology. While companies play catch-up on interoperability, making connections in the cloud may prove to be the best bet.

That last one — videoconferencing — speaks to what I mean when I say AV pros needs to be better IT pros than IT pros. It is a testament to the AV industry that at the recent InfoComm 2013, IT and network-related training was more popular than ever. AV/IT convergence has happened; the future is now. This industry prides itself on knowing the most about more technologies than anyone else on a project team. But the reason I think AV pros need to be better at IT — and need to better understand the practical implications, uses, and limitations of cloud computing, for example — is that AV pros are in a different technology business than IT pros. Their business is transactional; ours is experiential.

Analogies for the day: A couple friends meet on the street. In a transactional meeting, they agree to swap contact information. Friend A can’t find a business card. When he does he drops it, picks it up, then holds it out. Friend B doesn’t have a business card, but tries to jot down her info on the back of an ATM receipt, crosses something out, reviews everything, then holds it out. Wasn’t the smoothest transaction, but they both got what they wanted.

In an experiential meeting, each is thrilled to see the other and goes in for an hug. Friend A pauses because his iPhone rings, trips on his shoelace, then can’t decide if it’s a one-arm embrace or two arms around the neck. Friend B decides it’s two arms with a cheek peck, but she leans in at a collision angle and has to readjust on the fly. Bad experience; wasn’t what they had in mind and probably meant the next time they met their greeting was reduced to a nod or a fist bump.

The analogy of the experiential meeting reflects the AV pro’s world. When it has glitches or connections aren’t made, people experience its failure. A videoconferencing fail is different than an email system crash. Neither is good, but I’d argue the videoconferencing failure is more visceral. Yes, if neither works period, they are equally disfunctional. But a videoconference can look or sound bad; it can fail to incorporate needed multimedia; there are degrees of fail.

AV pros have to master IT, including cloud systems, to the point where they can ensure that clients experience what they want. That’s a higher bar than ensuring uptime (which AV pros also need to ensure in networked AV systems) or patching servers. Information technology presents challenges, and it’s been my experience that the cloud, at least, presents plenty of its own. (Full disclosure: Despite the aforementioned, I still live the cloud to this day. Chances are, you do, too.)

Whatever the information technology, learn it well. It can both augment and hinder the way people experience modern AV systems. AV/IT is a challenge — as well as a huge opportunity.

InfoComm’s popular IT and network-related training is now available, including Networking Technology Online and the more advanced Networked AV Systems.

About Brad Grimes

Brad Grimes is the Director of Communications for InfoComm International and the former editor of Pro AV magazine. He has been writing about technology for more than 25 years.

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