What is "The Cloud"?

It seems to be one of those buzz words that everyone uses, and no one can define. In fact, you couldn’t pick a more amorphous descriptor for a technology if you tried! Clouds by their definition are hazy, ever shifting things!
But despite the buzz and the confusion, the Cloud is real, and it represents the biggest shift in computing since the Internet itself. The Cloud changes everything — and its inevitable.
Actually, its been inevitable for about a decade now. Most of us saw it coming, but few could predict its scope. “Smart devices and the Cloud”, or the “Post PC era” are sound bytes from two competitors who understand the same reality: things are changing.
For years computers were silos of data and processing power sitting on your desk or your lap. With early networks, and then the Internet, those computers began to be able to share their data, and sometimes even their compute cycles. Another class of computer, called a server, existed primarily for these sharing functions. Web sites began changing from online newsprint to online services, where users could access the functionality of other computers to perform tasks, like uploading and encoding videos, or executing banking transactions. As both the servers and the computers accessing these servers (called “clients”) got smarter, web services started to become richer and more interactive. Soon the experience you got using a website began to look and behave a lot like the experience you got using a program you installed on your home computer. The so called “Web 2.0” was born when a critical mass of technologies began to support this kind of interaction.
The Cloud represents the logical conclusion of that progress: if services on the web can be as rich and usable as programs on your home computer — and in fact, richer because of their connected nature — then why bother installing programs on your computer at all? No one has to download and install Facebook on their PC or Mac — but its still one of the most used applications in history. Even the Facebook “app” you install on your smart phone is really just a curated Internet — more a web application than a traditional application (and if you don’t believe me, just trying using it with your WiFi and data connection off!)
More and more applications have a “web” version, that runs in the browser. In some cases these versions aren’t quite as rich as their traditional installed (aka “thick client”) counterparts, but many are quite usable and useful. Of course some applications still need direct access to the Client hardware. Photoshop won’t be in the Cloud any time soon — but its not unreasonable to predict that it could be enriched by the Cloud in the near future.
Cloud data centers offer more than just “software as a service” (SaaS). They also offer massive amounts of scalable compute power. Rendering 60 seconds of 30 frames per minute 3D video for a Pixar movie may take one machine 10 hours, but farm that processing up to 100 servers in the Cloud to run in parallel, and suddenly you’ve got your result in 10 minutes.  And storing terabytes of Hollywood movies in hard drives at home would be both cost and space prohibitive, but if a 300 computers in a Cloud data center store them, and you can access them from your XBox for a small monthly fee, suddenly you have decades of entertainment at your fingertips. This is called “infrastructure as a service” (IaaS).
The final step is called “platform as a service” (PaaS) and its ambitious goal is to begin augmenting and replacing the need for companies to own their own servers at all. When a mobile AIDS health station moves through Africa, they shouldn’t need to move computers and database servers with them — a smart, tablet style device and a satellite Internet connection can allow them access to a world of services, applications, and data with equipment that will fit in a back-pack.
As PaaS evolves and more applications and services are moved into the Cloud, the technology needs for first individuals and small companies, and later for large companies and enterprises declines. Software requirements are pushed into data centers, freeing up the Client device manufacturers to innovate around more natural interfaces. Rather than pouring R&D money into making a computer 1% faster than last year’s, that money goes into understanding human speech, facial expression or hand gestures. The processing and storage requirements are handled by the Cloud, while the interaction requirements are handled by the device the human being sees.
We’ve seen this already with touch-aware devices like the iPhone (and Android and Windows Phone) and with gesture-aware devices like the Kinect. Consumers are more interested in the experience than in installing and configuring applications. They don’t want to organize and train their computer to meet their needs, they want the device to be intuitive. In the past, software developers had a focus split between meeting the needs of the PC their software would run on, and the needs of the user accessing that software. In the Cloud, the software runs elsewhere, and the interface the user sees can be customized to the device and interaction model being used.
This transition won’t be a quick one — but its already begun. And analysts predict that by 2015 PaaS will be dominant in the industry. That means better devices, new kinds of software, and more connected experiences. For those who think Facebook is too invasive (or pervasive): prepare yourself. The always-on connected world is coming. And its gonna be cool.
The Terminator’s SkyNet may not have become self aware on April 19, 2011 but a massive network of intelligent computers running everything is closer to reality than science fiction…

Seminary Paper 2: Homosexuality and the Bible

As a preface to this post, please read this one, to understand the position I’m writing from.
I put off posting this paper because I know how contentious it is (and even painful for some.) Its a complicated topic, that has not been represented well by the Christian community. Some might be surprised to learn that Jesus apparently said nothing on the topic — that’s certainly a far-cry from the far right, conservative position on the subject! At any rate, I don’t post this for flame bait, but in the spirit of respectful discussion and an earnest desire to uncover what the Bible really says about this. Personally, I lean toward a more conservative viewpoint, but after doing the research for this paper, and finding decades of spiteful vitriol spewed by very un-Biblical Christian leaders on this topic, I can’t help but view the other side of the debate in a more empathetic light. Here’s my conclusion — or you can read the whole paper here.
If the church fathers have maintained a well-documented position for 2000 years, the church of today would do well to pay heed to that legacy. Certainly homosexuality is not a new concern, and if intelligent, Godly men have poured over what scripture we have on the subject and concluded that homosexual tendency is a sin to be conquered, then Christians have a duty to reach out to those lost in that sin, meet them humbly as fellow, fallen human beings, and demonstrate the love that Christ commanded of us.
If, however, the church leaders of centuries past lacked information, or staunchly defended a viewpoint that is intellectually and scripturally questionable – and there is certainly historical precedent for human error and bias affecting church positions – then that love and humility must remain applicable. We have to acknowledge that there are certain topics on which we lack literal divine instruction, and not stand in the way of those who would come to our Father’s throne holding an opinion different from our own!
However distasteful our view of a specific sin is, God leaves no margin for interpretation when He says that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23), that all sin is abhorrent to God (Jas 2:10), and that each of us is entirely dependent on His grace (Eph 2:8) and changed by His redemptive work (Phil 1:6). What right have we, who through no work of our own, having been saved by love, to tell fellow sinners that they are undeserving of that love?
Wherever an individual Christian lands on the debate about homosexuality, thank God it is not our place to judge. (John 8:7). Rather it is the duty of every believer to work out their salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12). Those of us touched by this subject, either personally, or through family or friends wrestling with a reality that even conservatives estimate to impact up to 10% of the population , would do well to study scripture prayerfully, read the opposing viewpoints, and resolve before God to act, think, speak and welcome in love anyone who would look to us, the church and the body of Christ, for guidance and friendship. We are called to be a light in the darkness, not flame throwers.

Seminary Paper 3: Creation

As a preface to this post, please read this one, to understand the position I’m writing from…
Our TA who marked my paper (and gave me an 88%!) said I did a good job researching other people’s opinions, but wasn’t clear enough on what I thought. I actually think I barely scratched the surface of all the different opinions, both educated and not-so-much, on the topic. And to be honest, all the talk bores me — my opinion is simple: God created the world. Moses wrote down his best understanding of how that happened, which both God and tradition revealed to him. His purpose in writing was to set the appropriate outlook and expectations for God’s people. I suspect that creation took longer than 6 literal days — although I believe that if God wanted to do it in 6, He could have. I suspect that God didn’t reveal the story to us literally because God loves science — He desires for His kids to learn about Him through the study of His creative power. And I see importance to the debate in the differentiation between creation (bara) and formation. Only Elohim can create matter from nothing — even ardent evolutionists are at a loss to explain matter where there was none before. Formation, on the other hand, is observable throughout the created world — even today.
I’m not an evolutionist. Human beings are more than the sum of their parts, so I accept a “special creation” or at least special formation, when it comes to human beings. How God did that, or how He formed the rest of the universe? Well, I’ll leave that pursuit to those smarter than me. I suspect God wants to communicate with them on a level I am ill-equipped to perceive. Here’s my summary. You can read the rest of the paper here.
Why were the initial Christian reactions to Darwin’s theory received without prejudice, and even welcomed by some, when now they are maligned as affronts to our religious beliefs? Have we as Christians grown tired of revising our understanding of the Bible, and in the face of scientific progress become stubborn and superstitious? Or has Neo-Darwinism’s scorn for theology backed Christianity into a defensive and reactive position? Are we any different than the church who forced Copernicus into hiding for his theory of heliocentricity? Or is a literal 6 days the final line we must hold in order to defend the inspiration and value of the Bible?

The reality is God directed Moses to write about 6 days, and to describe the creation of mankind in His image. How God did those things, or how long He took to do it is a mystery we’re invited to explore – as He gave us all of creation to explore. “Scriptural statements are not bound by rules as strict as natural events, and God is not less excellently revealed in these events than in the sacred propositions of the Bible.” (Galileo, 1957) and in fact it is in the very exploration of God’s creation (and creative method) that intelligent people find God !
We can’t know, or pretend to know, or argue vehemently that we know how God created the universe when we weren’t there, and He didn’t spell it out for us scientifically. Even the most likely author of the book of Genesis wasn’t present when it happened. What we can know is bara Élohim – God created. Not just formed, but created. And because He made us like Him, we’re allowed to ask “how?”

Seminary Paper 1: Hell and Universalism

As a preface to this post, please read this one, to understand the position I’m writing from…
I haven’t read Rob Bell’s book yet, but I’m interested to do so soon. This paper was written as part of my own exploration of what the Bible had to say on the fun topic of eternal damnation. A seminary prof has since forwarded me an interesting article on a related idea called “Christus Victor” which is worth a read. Here’s my summary:
Faced with clear scripture as is found in 2 Thessalonians 1:9, a liberal, in a more conservative mood, would have to concede that “eternal destruction” probably meant, at least to Paul, “eternal.” A conservative, faced with the reality of hell for someone they love, likely would concede that God can do things we can’t imagine, and remember that He alone governs such things: “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.” (Rev 1:17-18)
Interpreting Paul’s words on judgment and hell, alongside Old Testament notions on the subject, Christ’s teaching, the cultural understanding that Paul was speaking into, the rest of the New Testament canon, and the literalness of the form, it would seem to take some significant mental effort to construe his writing as anything but literal and what God intended him to write. Paul spoke about judgment after life to inform, encourage and instruct the church at Thessalonica, admonishing them to live in a way worthy of God’s calling and reminding them that God would reward the just and punish the unjust – clearly articulating an eternal, painful outcome for those who did not obey.
Although it seems wise to take the scripture at face value, one should acknowledge that God’s love and his power are beyond what we can imagine. It is fortunate, then, that these things are up to Him, and not to even His church to decide in the end.
You can read the rest here using Office Web Apps on SkyDrive.

I think we're alone now

Another reason for pushing our blog a little further into obscurity is that the opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of my employer. Occasionally I rant with fervor, and those rantings should not be associated with my “work life” identity as a representative of a large software company. For instance, while my job title indicates that I evangelize technology (literally using the word “evangelist”), in my personal life there’s a Gospel that I’d much rather be associated with — created for a cause much more important.
Not only am I a dad, a husband, and a technology guy, but I am also a seminary student. And although I hope my personal faith guides my professional life, and that obedience and devotion to the Lord of my life throughout my daily routine can somehow reflect His truth and grace; although I appreciate a country and a workplace that allow me freedom to practice my beliefs, I do not, like Sunday School teacher’s used to tell us we should, use my work life as an opportunity to prosleytize.
Some may call that cowardly — and maybe it is — but the reality is that religion and politics are two conversation topics sure to raise ire quickly. And in much of the world, politics has become irrevocably infused with religion. This morning I watched Mike Huckabee on the Daily Show having a chat that started on the topic of the founding father’s religious beliefs, that seamlessly became a talk about big vs. small government. In neither the host’s, nor the guest’s, mind did the topic change from religion to politics. As far as they recognized, there was no dividing line. And if you can’t talk one without the other, and if at least one of those is sure to offend the sensibilities of your audience, then outside of a personal relationship, there is no way to share your faith at work.
That doesn’t mean there is no way to share your faith with individuals you meet at work who become friends. It just means that the relationship has to come first. Within a boardroom, a rant about ones beliefs on hell would quickly destroy any ability to communicate professionally. Within a friendship, however, listening to your another’s thoughts and beliefs and sharing your own, is a mutually rewarding and enjoyable activity.
So let me be clear for those who know me professionally and still read this blog, and for those who may later stumble across it: this blog is a conversation between friends. Yes, the Internet creates strange definitions of friendship, but the point remains valid. These are not the opinion of my employer, nor would I espouse many of these opinions in the course of a normal business day. I hope and work for an ethic and integrity in my job that reflects the noble characteristics that my faith teaches, but I respect the viewpoints of others, and would not use my belief system to judge or preach to others I come across in my professional life. Within the context of friendship, that respect continues, but in the form of dialogue and exploration. On this site, and in my personal life, I do articulate my beliefs, but in the spirit of an open, and enjoyable exchange of ideas. Since you’re reading my site, my beliefs are likely to be more prominent, but you are free to disagree, debate, ask questions, and challenge my conclusions. You are also invited to explore these beliefs for yourself, to see if maybe there is a God of the universe, who created you unique and with a purpose…
All this to say that I’ve written a couple papers for my seminary class on Biblical Interpretation. I’m not in seminary to become a pastor, but to leverage a spiritual and academic environment conducive to a better understanding of my Saviour and a more mature and informed faith. To that end, I chose to explore interpretations of a few controversial topics, and in the coming week or so, I’d like to post excerpts from those papers here for discussion. I have tried to be moderate and balanced in my approach, while honoring my own faith which informs my decisions. I hope they are useful for a respectful, interesting exchange of ideas.

To the Cloud!

As you may have observed, things have changed around jonandnic.com…
Last week, I ran a routine update on our hosted WordPress.com installation, and it crashed. I had to download an FTP client and go in and re-upload some files manually to fix it myself. And just the bizarreness of that process — one that used to be second nature to me — illustrated just how much the web has changed. Once having your own FTP site with a symlink to a “www” directory was elite. Now its almost obsolete.
Then it occurred to me that its almost as bizarre to be managing my own WordPress installation, when the hosted solution has more features. Again, once there was a reason to do this — and a reason to host my own shared pictures folder. Now the “Cloud” solutions are better, easier and are managed by someone else.
Not only that, discoverability has been completely changed by Google, Bing, Facebook, LinkedIn… all these other services that help you cultivate your online identity. We’ll probably always keep our own domain name, so that we can always have our own, easy-to-remember e-mail addresses, but even that e-mail is hosted by someone else. Once I ran my own Exchange server sitting on a computer under my desk. Now I use the Cloud…
And the last point, sadly, is that blogs aren’t what they used to be. I could probably count on one hand the number of people who follow Nic and I by going directly to our website. Most see us on Facebook, and maybe occasionally read a post automatically linked there by “Networked Blogs.” I will still keep a blog, because I’d still like to believe that there’s room on the ‘net for discourse exceeding 140 characters in length, but I’m just fine with having WordPress manage it for me.
I did manage to import the archive back to the point that I started using WordPress (sans categories, unfortuantely) — the older (eXpression) archives are, for now, stuck on a hard drive at home. Maybe I’ll post them on Azure at some point.
On a related note: if anyone knows where I can host a single page on the web for free, linked to my domain name, drop me a line!


I just got done two intense, fantastic weeks of travel:
A week in San Francisco, California where a partner succesfully announced a new product that I invested in through work. It was exciting to see it unveiled and see all their hard work pay off. I was especially honored to receive an honorary “orange engineers tie” from one of the lead developers.
A week in Redmond, Washington at the mothership, putting on an Executive Briefing for a partner who I’ve been working hard with. The briefing went fantastic, I got lots of good press (which made up for the flame mail I had to deal with from a less-than-stellar IT person last weekend), and the partner was pleased. We got to tour the Microsoft Home of the Future, which was really neat.
And now I’m done until the baby arrives. There are a couple more trips I probably should do — but I’m not going to risk missing our first Canadian baby’s birthday! Mom is home in 11 days, so here’s hoping the baby can hang in there until a bit closer to the due date. Nic is feeling fine, but gets tired easily. We’ll be glad when life gets back to normal… or as normal as it can be with three little monsters in our tiny house!