friday-rant
Cloud Computing

Rant: Cloud applications are s-l-o-w. Too s-l-o-w.

Back in the mists of time, when the internet was fresh, young, and exciting, I learned JavaScript, a client-side scripting language. Mostly, like other web developers at the time, I learned how to test for different browsers and serve appropriate JS code for each, since they all had their own quirks and odd behaviour. Still, for making interactive forms, pop-up calendars and cache-busting ad tags, JavaScript served its purpose.

Fast-forward almost 20 years and JavaScript is now an application programming language in its own right. Libraries such as jQuery, AngularJS and, to a lesser extent, Node.js have added what was missing and improved compatibility. It's now much easier to write JavaScript applications that run in almost any browser, and the feature-set has been massively improved.

In fact JavaScript is now used for all sorts of online applications, from games to business software. Along with HTML5 and other new programmers' toys, it's helping push more applications online.

And it's here that my rant really begins. I don't care about games, but cloud-based business applications using client-side browser code are becoming a bane of the workplace.

From a development perspective, it's great that you can now offload most of the heavy lifting onto the client. It simplifies development and reduces the level of resources you require. But the client is a browser (or a browser OS), so you're adding another layer of abstraction at the other end. This, unless your users have some very expensive hardware and a lightning fast internet connection, will reduce performance.

You can test this for yourself:

  1. Grab an offline office suite (LibreOffice is free if you don't already have one).
  2. Sign up to use a free online office suite.
  3. Find a reasonably complex word-processed document.
  4. Find a reasonably complex multi-sheet spreadsheet.
  5. Open the document and spreadsheet in the offline office suite.
  6. Open the document and spreadsheet in the online office suite.
  7. Make changes to the document and spreadsheet, in both office suites. Modify formatting, change cells, recalculate, scroll around, sort tables, add images. Spend five to 10 minutes doing the same tasks in each office suite.

What did you notice? Chances are the offline office suite will have been faster than the online one. In some of my tests, working offline is three to five times faster. That's mainly due to the overhead of running code in a browser.

Then there's the issue of internet connections, which are rarely perfect. They should be, I know. This is 2015, after all. But we don't even have perfect video-conferencing yet, as highlighted by this humorous article (NSFW). A lost connection can be infuriating when you're halfway through updating a document using a cloud-based application. If you're outside a 20-mile radius from Silicon Valley, this will be a factor.

Microsoft has the right idea here. Its office suite lets you work online if necessary, but the offline software remains the primary productivity tool. So you can work in a fast, internet-independent office suite for most of the time, only using the online version when you need to. After all, why buy a fast computer that's then hamstrung by having to run sand-boxed, feature-reduced web code in a clunky browser environment?

You might think all of this doesn't matter, but businesses think otherwise. I have a major NZ-based client that moved all of its office applications to the cloud two years ago. That client is now moving back to a half-cloud solution, with offline office suites complementing online apps. Even with relatively new laptops, the cloud suites were noticeably slower and less reliable than working offline.

I also spoke to an IT provider here: none of its business clients are planning to migrate to a cloud-only environment. Some have tried it, but the online tools are just too slow, feature-poor and unreliable for full-time use. The productivity loss outweighs the relatively low subscription cost of cloud applications.

One day perhaps we'll get there. Computers and internet connections will become so fast that the difference between online and offline applications will be undetectable. Then again, one day we'll all have nuclear fusion reactors powering our homes, electric self-driving cars and maybe even perfect video-conferencing.

But don't hold your breath. For now, cloud productivity applications are second best to offline tools – assuming you actually want to get some work done.

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Alex Cruickshank

Alex Cruickshank has been writing about technology and business since 1994. He has lived in various far-flung places around the world and is now based in Berlin.  

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