Dumping my laptop for...a server?

I'm not sure if anyone noticed, but Apple released a new product last week. The i-something-or-other.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor on

I'm not sure if anyone noticed, but Apple released a new product last week. The i-something-or-other. The meager media coverage, despite it's generally low-key nature, did give me pause, though. While the iPad (yes, my tongue is now dislodged from my cheek) doesn't hold a lot of interest for me outside of its potential to change the e-book landscape, it brought me back to an idea I'd first discussed with fellow ZDNet blogger, Jason Perlow: "The Screen."

Essentially, I've been saving for a high-end laptop/desktop replacement that could handle virtualization, lots of storage, video editing, you name it. My MacBook just isn't cutting it anymore. So what does that have to do with the iPad, or any other tablet for that matter? The idea of "the screen" and everything the iPad represents means that lugging around one of those slick Core i7 laptops I've been eying up is probably a recipe for obsolescence.

I already spend plenty of time in the cloud. Regular readers of my blog over at ZDNet Education will know that I'm pretty fond of Google Apps. When I blog, I write in a web-based editor. My personal website runs on a Joomla! server in my basement so that I can add content from anywhere that I have web access. The growing ecosystem of sites I maintain for my day job? Also content management systems (but not running on boxes in my basement).

My family videos and photos? Migrating slowly to Facebook, or that web server in my basement, or Picasa Web Albums, or wherever. The only reason I'd want them on a local machine is for editing (and even that is getting increasingly less necessary as web applications grow more robust). On a server, I can have redundant disks, backups galore, cloud integration (where do you think I back up my website? To my Ubuntu One account, of course.), and, most importantly, accessibility from anywhere.

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Why should I bother backing up a laptop hard drive or synchronizing across computers? If everything I need sits on a server that has built-in redundancies and backups that I control, why would I expose myself to the risks and pains of running my life on a laptop? Microsoft has tried to make something like this available to home users in their Windows Home Server product with limited success (check out HP's implementation here) and, despite a general lack of interest among consumers, provides a remarkably compelling product.

I'm afraid I'm too big a geek to just go buy a Windows Home Server, though. Besides, the Windows vision is more about backing up and synchronizing all of your computing devices. I'd like to take this a step further into an arena clearly suggested by the iPad. I want something that businesses have been kicking around for a while as they discuss "private clouds." I want a personal cloud. I won't put that one in quotes because it's hardly a new phrase. And yet it's something that just hasn't gone mainstream yet (although Facebook and Google are well on their way to providing you with something of a personal cloud carved out from their much larger public clouds).

Businesses and schools are finding that they can provide desktop computing experiences by provisioning virtual PCs in the cloud. Devices like the iPad and increasingly smart smartphones will drive us to access PC power and applications that reside "somewhere else." In my case, I want that somewhere else to be my basement. For a lot of consumers, it's already enough to just access Facebook and occasionally Flickr, but the idea of a "virtual PC" that is consumer-friendly is hardly a stretch. How many consumers regularly use something like GoToMyPC to access their office desktops? This already isn't as foreign in the consumer space as it might seem.

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As I was writing this post, I came across the Storagezilla blog and a quote from one of the folks at Mozy.com (a cloud-based backup service):

We have information scattered on a increasingly large number of sources. Facebook is now the biggest photo hosting service in the world, but they throw away the originals you upload. Having a Personal Cloud will allow you to keep the originals, but share them out. The most important thing about the Personal Cloud is that it will be personal. Fundamentally the data is your data and you need to be in control of it.

Exactly. So here I go, embarking on creating my own personal cloud. I still have a little bit of saving to do, but I've asked for TigerDirect gift cards for my birthday. I'm not getting a new laptop because my needs (like many consumers, small business owners, writers, content creators, and general denizens of the 21st Century) are better met on a server accessed from whatever screen happens to be in front of me.

But what about video editing? Didn't I say I needed to do that? Why yes, I did, and with a little help from Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, I can build a server that can also crank through editing tasks quite handily. With a little more help from FreeNX, I can access my machine remotely and handle said editing, particularly as sound and video support continues to mature around the FreeNX compression technology.

In fact, with cheap quad cores, inexpensive motherboards that support SATA RAID, and other bits of inexpensive kit, I can have my personal cloud running quite well for less than the cost of the laptops I've been drooling over. This same cloud can be my own web server, FTP server, media repository, and whatever else I want it to be. I can virtualize operating systems for testing and anywhere access. Thin clients for the kids instead of new laptops? Piece of cake. Because this personal cloud isn't just my personal cloud, it's my family's personal cloud. It's even highly scalable as improved cclustering technology comes to Linux.

So am I predicting that everyone will have a Linux server in their basement (or better yet, a cluster of them) in a year or two, serving up virtual desktops and SaaS applications left and right? Of course not. The technology is there and getting better and that's where I want to head, both because it has a lot of potential applicability in my day job as a school IT administrator and to get in touch with my inner nerd. Besides, with 5 kids, keeping them in cheap devices to access their own piece of my personal cloud will be a lot less expensive than keeping them in new laptops.

However, what I'm really suggesting is that as iPad-like devices take off, as netbooks get cheaper, and as mobile phones increasingly take on computing roles in our lives, a lot more consumers will start seeing the cloud differently (I should probably say that consumers will start seeing the cloud in the first place; this is still business/tech jargon as far as most people are concerned, even if they access webmail and Facebook every day). Welcome to 2010, folks, where the iPad is just one more screen on which we can access our personal clouds, which will most likely exist somewhere more robust than my basement, between my furnace and my tool bench.

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