Notes on experiments in Cloud Computing

If you read the technical media, you know that “cloud computing” is a phrase that is much in vogue these days.  There’s lots of debate as to precisely what “cloud computing” means, and there are lots of sub-categories to get a handle on too:

  • Software as a service
  • Platform as a service
  • Infrastructure as a service

 At CIS and indeed across the College, we’ve been keeping an eye on these developments and experimenting with cloud computing for some time.  Here are some examples.

Formstack (formerly FormSpring).

The old way:  whenever someone needed to create a form on the HMC site, they contacted our “webmaster” and then went back and forth discussing how a form should look, while the webmaster made changes to a set of perl CGI scripts.  The new way: end users log on to Formstack and create their own forms using a drag and drop interface in the browser.  Features like encryption of data and email notifications are easy. 

This experiment has so far been a hit with users, especially administrative staff. We’ve used it for Alumni surveys, HR forms and lots of others.  Users really like the fact that they can design the forms themselves and turn around time is a matter of minutes, not days.   We are not entirely satisfied with the rudimentary data analysis tools that Formstack provides, even though they are improving all the time.  So we are looking at other online survey creation tools as well.


Google Apps

Some 47% of our students currently use Gmail as their primary provider, per our Fall 2009 survey.  In the engineering department, many faculty staff and students use Gmail and Google calendar as their primary email and calendar systems.  There’s clearly interest in this form of cloud computing.   Google Apps for Education is a different offering that we are currently experimenting with. It differs from the public version in several key ways, notably the absence of advertising and a contractual agreement recognizing FERPA obligations.


Jumpboxes are pre-built virtual machines that contain one or more dedicated applications.  They provide a web based interface for managing the virtual machine.  The idea is to provide a ready to run virtual server.  We’ve been experimenting with Jumpboxes in partnership with a hosting company out of Chicago. is one site that needed an instance of WordPress.  It took two or three emails and about 15 minutes of work to get them up and running.


Bluelock  is one of a group of companies that are offering on-demand access to virtual machines, based on VMWare’s technology.  Via a web browser, one builds a “virtual data center” with virtual servers (windows and linux) . You can manage the virtual servers from anywhere (as long as you can get to a web browser) and you can power them on and off as needed.  The pricing model is based on usage.   In general, cloud computing offerings are priced in a “pay as you go” fashion.  One thing we have to do is analyze how much it is costing us to provide similar services in house so that we can get a good understanding of whether services like Bluelock’s are a viable supplement to our own efforts.


This is a fun one.  Presentations online in a format that is very different from good old stolid Powerpoint. Elizabeth Hodas has done several of her conference and in-house presentations using this tool, and enjoys it greatly.  It takes an approach that is very different from Powerpoint, using the idea of a large canvas on which you create presentations and zoom in and out to work your way through the presentation.  It’s worth a few minutes of your time to take a look at  Or chat with Elizabeth about her experiences.

I’ve mentioned virtual machines several times. In another article, we’ll delve more into that topic.

So what cloud computing experiments have you been doing lately?  Let us know what you’ve been learning.   We’re especially interested when you find something that you think the would be of interest to many HMC users.

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