Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Moving Genealogy to the Cloud -- Benefit or Bane?

There is no doubt that online genealogy or genealogy in the cloud is becoming the dominant force in genealogy world wide. The cloud has been defined by the Deloitte Center for the Edge, Cloud Computing -- Storms on the Horizon, John Hagel, Co-chairman and John Seeley Brown, Independent Co-chairman, as follows:
Cloud computing is a model for delivering on-demand, self-service computing resources with ubiquitous network access, location-independent resource pooling, rapid elasticity, and a pay per use business model.
In most cases, the term "the cloud" is a euphemism for the Internet or Web, but as you consider the definition closely, you will realize that "cloud computing" goes somewhat beyond a mere change in labels. Cloud computing involves a transfer of functions, including programs, data storage etc., from a local personal computer to those same functions provided by a remote server attached to a data farm. If you think about it, the large online genealogy database companies conform substantially to this definition. Let's look at this point-by-point.

On-demand services, self-service computing resources with ubiquitous network access
The four very large online genealogy database programs,,, and, are certainly set up to offer services "on-demand." All four can be accessed any time of day or night using whatever type of device that can connect to the Internet. In the genealogical community there is an ongoing discussion of the need for a "local" genealogical database program. Bloggers, myself included, have written extensively on this topic and the question arises regularly as new devotees begin their genealogical experience. My point in writing the present post is not to rehash all of the arguments pro and con concerning whether or not a desktop or local program is still necessary, but to point out that the question will likely become moot in the very near future.

For cloud computing to, in a sense, take over all of the presently local functions of a desktop computer may sound only remotely possible, until you take inventory of the functions you presently use and mark how many of them are now programs that run on the cloud (Internet). For example think about the following list of programs or program types commonly used by genealogists, that is also in addition to the "big four" online database programs:

  • email programs of all types
  • Evernote
  • Dropbox
  • Google Docs
  • Facebook
  • Google+
  • calendar program
  • Skype
  • etc.

You, of course, realize that none of these programs works particularly well or at all without a connection to the Internet.

Location-independent resource pooling
This is likely the most important aspect of the inevitable movement to cloud computing. As the larger database programs accumulate more and more online genealogical resources, the need to travel to a library or other repository diminishes. Of course, we continually point out that the need to "go offline" and visit local genealogy sources is not going away very soon, but there is an inexorable movement of both national and local source records to online availability. Newly created records are almost uniformly online in some form or another and the historical records are being added by the millions practically every hour of every day.

The quandary presented by this inexorable acquisition of records is that the process creates a striking division in the genealogical community between the computer literate and the illiterate. This division widens every day and becomes an insurmountable obstacle to those without basic computer and network skills. Becoming a genealogists now requires a plethora of technical skills. Those without those specialized skills simply find themselves unable to function the cloud computing world.

Rapid elasticity
This part of the definition of cloud computing may not be easily understood, but it is patently obvious. Computer technology is very rapidly evolving. Many genealogist express extreme distress at the changes in programs and procedures that seem to occurs with increasing regularity. The truth is that only those genealogists who embrace these technological changes will survive. The large online genealogy companies recognize this inevitability and are targeting younger and younger audiences. Advertising and promotional campaigns are aimed solely at younger, more flexible users. The older generation of genealogists are being virtually ignored. The reason is also obvious. The older genealogists lack the computer skills to keep up with the pace of change and what is more evident, many of them resist acquiring those skills. You may not like the new model of genealogy, but like it or not, the changes are already overwhelming many in the genealogical community that find that they simply cannot function with the "new programs."

The changes are the results of the rapid move to cloud computing. Those who adapt or have acquired the skills necessary through personal effort and interest will survive. The rest will simply become (and are mostly already) marginalized by the move to cloud computing.

Pay-per-use business model
Three of the four big online genealogy companies fit this model exactly. It is more difficult to see that, although seemingly totally free, also falls into this model and is part of the process of cloud computing. In fact, FamilySearch is the most aggressive in this regard. FamilySearch is a non-profit that commits its resources for religious reasons. But, as a pragmatic and progressive organization, FamilySearch realizes that many, if not all, of the genealogical functions it has utilized in the past are now more appropriately handled in the cloud through cloud computing. Hence, it has moved nearly all of its services from microfilm rental to providing source documentation, to the cloud. The other genealogical database programs fully embrace the cloud computing model and are the primary motivators for the changes that are occurring.

What will happen in the short run with genealogy? More and more of the functions accomplished in the past on paper with a pen or pencil will be transferred to the cloud. Any computer program that fails to connect directly to an online database using the cloud computing model will simply disappear. As I already stated, the issue of having a desktop program will become moot because the rising generation of genealogists will realize that the redundancy of a local program does not make any sense. All of the current fears about control, data backup and other such issues will simply vanish as the cloud computing generation takes over and the older, more conservative, genealogists die off or become marginalized.

As a final note, when was the last time you heard an advertising program promoting genealogy to older, retired people?

1 comment:

  1. Until all records move to the cloud you need to check out County Clerks - I just updated contact information for every county in America! :-) Cheers -Garret