This week, our tech reporting team is exploring cloud computing — the big business of providing computing power and data storage that companies need, but which happens out of sight, as if it's "in the cloud."
It's a timely topic, since there's a price war going on as tech titans aim to control the cloud market. Amazon Web Services, an arm of the e-commerce giant, is the reigning king of large-scale cloud services. If you've ever watched streaming TV on Netflix, clicked on a Pinterest pin, or listened to music on Spotify, you've used Amazon Web Services, or AWS.
"We delivered computing power as if it was a utility," says Matt Wood, Amazon Web Services' chief data scientist.
A decade ago, startups and other Internet companies had to set up their own data centers and computing backbones, which meant a serious capital investment up front and fairly fixed computing resources.
Now, cloud platforms like Amazon Web Services or its competitors — Google Cloud Platform or Microsoft Azure — provide that infrastructure by letting companies rent it out at a low cost. Think of it as the difference between generating your own power at home or just getting electricity from a grid.
"They can draw down exactly the right amount of energy that they need, whether it's to light a light or run a fridge," Wood says. "And they only pay for that electricity as and when they use it, and they pay for it for as much or as little as they need, as they're using it. So we offer computational resources in exactly the same way."
The effect for you is that new services, apps and startup companies — Airbnb is another AWS client — can spin up quickly, without much cost. And those companies can adjust to your needs faster.
"And that nimbleness that startups are so famous for is just as valuable inside large organizations," Wood says.
The eight-year-old Amazon Web Services was a pioneer in offering pay-as-you-go computing. And it makes big money — an estimated $3.8 billion in revenue last year. Its head start means AWS has had a near monopoly on large-scale cloud computing — a 2013 Gartner report estimates AWS controls five times the computing power of the next 14 cloud providers, combined. But now, competition is growing fierce.
"There will not be just one company that's the cloud provider," says Google Cloud Platform manager Greg DeMichillie. "There will be several."
Google recently slashed prices for its cloud services by 80 percent, starting a price war that the companies find themselves in now.
"We're going to continue to be very aggressive on that," DeMichillie says.
Amazon, Google, Microsoft and others are competing to dominate the cloud. The winner or winners will have a lot of control over the Internet. Their choices affect issues like data privacy, and as virtual landlords, their terms and prices could control who gets to build what on the Internet, and for how much.
"Snapchat didn't exist three years ago," DeMichillie points out. "You can go down your list of apps you probably have on your Android phone or your iPhone. Those exist because cloud platforms allow two developers with an idea to launch a service."
Gartner analyst David Smith says the price war is more about money than innovation.
"So if you have people on a 99-year lease type thing, going back to your landlord analogy, once you're there, it's difficult for them to move. That's the control point," Smith says.
For now, this competition means much cheaper bills for Internet businesses.
"That's good for consumers, it's good for developers, it makes cloud accessible to even more developers who have more financial constraints. So we just think it's a good thing for everybody," DeMichillie says.
Prices have fallen so fast that Amazon doesn't rule out the possibility that prices for its services could wind up at or close to zero.
"Yeah, I mean, where we can achieve better economies of scale, we'll continue to pass on those savings onto our customers," Wood says.
The president recently signed an executive order raising the minimum hourly wage to $10.10 for workers employed by federal contractors — including those with disabilities.
That's a victory for disabled workers who can make just pennies per hour at so-called sheltered workplaces.
While some call sheltered workshops a godsend, others say they are examples of good intentions gone wrong.
Sertoma Centre, located in Chicago's south suburbs, is one such organization. It provides employment opportunities to about 250 people with disabilities through subcontracting jobs such as packaging bottles for microbreweries.
Pay at the Sertoma Centre and other sheltered workshops is regulated by the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, a law originally intended to encourage the hiring of veterans with disabilities. It allows companies — including some federal contractors — to pay subminimum wages, based on how productive a person with disabilities is compared to a non-disabled worker doing the same task.
At Sertoma, workers might earn anywhere from 25 cents to Illinois' minimum wage of $8.25 per hour.
But the concept has increasingly come under fire by disability advocacy groups. They say the workshops reinforce a life of poverty, leaving thousands isolated and exploited by their employers.
Curtis Decker, who heads the National Disability Rights Network, says that sheltered workshops were originally a good idea, a place where people "could get trained, be protected and learn some skills."
But, he says, the concept is way out of date.
"Forty or fifty years later, we have... people in these segregated workshops not moving out, not getting into competitive employment and making well below the minimum wage," he says.
With the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, there's been more emphasis on placing the disabled in the mainstream labor market. Decker and others are calling for an end to sheltered employment.
They have the support of the Justice Department. Acting Assistant Attorney General Jocelyn Samuels recently announced a settlement with Rhode Island calling for the state to provide typical minimum wage jobs for disabled workers in their communities, and to phase out many sheltered workshops.
"It is the promise of the American with Disabilities Act to open the doors of the American workplace to people with disabilities and to abolish the low expectations that have kept people with disabilities shut out of their communities for decades," Samuels says.
Gus van den Brink says the Sertoma Centre and other agencies do work to find jobs for the disabled in the community, but the focus should not be on shutting down all sheltered workshops. He says it would be nearly impossible for some people with severe intellectual disabilities to get a job at all. It's sheltered workshops, he says, that give them a chance to work and earn a paycheck.
"Some of the individuals may not even completely understand what the value of that paycheck is," van den Brink says. "But they know they are receiving a paycheck so they are getting a lot of self-esteem. They are very proud of it."
Even so, Assistant Attorney General Samuels says the Justice Department will work with other states to make sure some workers with disabilities have the opportunity to do their work, as she puts it, at "real jobs for real wages."
About a dozen or so archaeologists in downtown Columbia, S.C. are focused on a 165-acre sliver of land that used to be a prisoner of war camp during the Civil War. Last summer, the property was sold and the group is trying to recover as many artifacts as they can before a developer builds condos and shops in its place.
"We're out here to salvage what we can in advance of that development," says Chester DePratter, a University of South Carolina archaeologist.
The site used to be a Union officer prisoner-of-war camp and as they work, time is running out. DePratter and his team have a permit to excavate until April 30.
More than a thousand Union officers were imprisoned here during the winter of 1864. At the time, it was an exercise yard for the patients at what was then a mental health asylum, so the prison quickly became known as Camp Asylum.
General Sherman was conducting a scorched earth attack on the South and DePratter says the Confederacy moved the prisoners around a lot to avoid Sherman's march.
"When they were let in through the gates here on Dec. 12, 1864, most of them had just a single blanket," says DePratter. "Their only option to get out of the wind and the cold, for many of them, was just to dig a hole in the ground."
These holes are what DePratter and his team are looking for, hoping to find anything that these Union officers left behind.
Archaeologist Heathley Johnson is about waist-deep in a hole that workers discovered a few days earlier.
"I found a lead bale seal for like a bale of cotton or goods. And I've found another little piece of lead that looked like it had been flattened and folded over," says Johnson. "So they were just either idly carving on it or perhaps making a gaming piece or a chess piece."
They've also found some buttons, some combs and a piece of bright blue uniform fabric.
About 56,000 soldiers died in prisons during the Civil War, but only one prisoner died at Camp Asylum. Joe Long, a curator at the South Carolina Relic Room and Military Museum, suspects that the time of year could have had something to do with the low death rate.
"It was winter and that definitely meant the danger of exposure and hypothermia. But disease did not spread quickly in those months," Long says. They did what they could to keep their spirits up, he says.
"There was a glee club at the camp," Long says. "The informal rule was you could sing all of the Federal or Yankee songs that you want, but you have to balance each one with a Confederate song."
Archaeologists have poured over diaries and letters from the prisoners, but most of them talk about the weather, lack of food and missing their families, rather than their possessions. There is very little information about what the Union prisoners might have left behind. So DePratter and his team dig. Sometimes the unexpected turns up.
"I just found this," says archaeologist Chris Parker.
Parker has a small object in his hand, about two inches long. A grin appears on DePratter's face.
"This is an interesting piece. It's not from the prison period," says DePratter. "This is a piece of flake stone, probably thousands of years old from Indians who lived here on the site long before the prison was here. It's probably a knife."
There is no telling what these archaeologists might find, but by the end of April, this project will be over, developers will be in to build condos, stores and perhaps even a baseball stadium, and any artifacts remaining underground will likely be buried forever.
It's after 10 p.m. as Sam Nichols slowly cruises through the tiny town of O'Brien, Ore., shining superbright spotlights into the shadows.
"We're just checking this commercial building here, just to make sure there's no one hiding around it or anything," Nichols says.
Nichols' King Cab pickup has a yellow flasher on top and signs on the doors identifying it as a Citizens Against Crime patrol. Riding with Nichols is fellow volunteer Alan Cress.
"We're not trying to take the place of law enforcement," Cress says. "In fact, we have a great deal of respect for what law enforcement does. We recognize the limited resources they have, and we're just trying to keep a presence out there."
You might think, out in the country, there's not much crime to speak of. But in rural southern Oregon, high unemployment, the growing use of meth and other drugs, and the sudden lack of law enforcement has fueled an explosion of burglaries, vehicle thefts and other property crimes.
For decades, revenue from timber sales on the federal land that makes up 70 percent of Josephine County kept property taxes low and county government functioning. As logging dramatically declined, those payments dried up.
After two failed property tax levies, the sheriff's department's budget was cut by more than half. Two-thirds of the staff was laid off. A single deputy was left to patrol the entire county.
In the small town of Merlin, members of the North Valley Community Watch Responder Team sit in a classroom in a civic building. At the whiteboard is Ken Selig, a 33-year veteran of the sheriff's department. Faced with being laid off, he retired.
Today, he's preparing the volunteers for a training exercise. They're practicing how to search a building where an intruder may be hiding.
When it's time for the drill, team members cautiously maneuver down the hallway, searching room by room with unloaded guns drawn.
"Neighborhood watch!" they shout. "Police are on their way! Show us your hands!"
Selig says the cutbacks left a vacuum. Soon, he and other concerned neighbors formed the community watch.
"So we started to train," Selig says. "I used the same lesson plans, the same things that when I taught at the academy."
The group began taking those lessons into the community, something that made a difference to resident Jeff Bailey. A while back, Bailey noticed a tarp hiding something way back on a neighbor's forested land.
"We didn't know if it was a stolen car being hidden," Bailey says. "We didn't know if it was somebody living up there, maybe somebody cooking drugs."
The sheriff's department was contacted but didn't respond, so residents called the Community Watch Responder Team. Members confronted the squatters, advised them they were trespassing, and they left.
Bailey says that after a string of break-ins and car thefts in the area, he appreciates that presence.
"It's solving the problem, No. 1, and it's also kind of sending a message that people are watching and people are willing to do something about crime in the area," he says.
'We Can Do This Ourselves'
There are now at least four communities in the county with citizen safety groups. County Sheriff Gil Gilbertson says he supports neighborhood watches, but he worries when he recalls a community meeting he attended.
"The gentleman sitting right next to me kept repeating, 'We're not going to hire any more of you guys, we're not going to pay for you because we can do this ourselves.' Well, that really concerns me," Gilbertson says. "That does concern me."
Next month, Josephine County voters will have another chance to approve a public safety levy. But members of the citizens groups say they've found a new sense of self-reliance. Even if the sheriff's department returns to full funding, they say, they'll continue protecting their communities.
President Obama, aboard Marine One, took an aerial tour of devastation caused by a massive mudslide a month ago that left at least 41 people dead near the town of Oso, Wash.
The president, who made a stop in the state on his way to Japan for the start of a four-day visit to Asia, witnessed toppled trees, mud and debris from the March 22 landslide.
"We're going to be strong right alongside you," Obama promised the people of Oso on Tuesday.
Later, at a community church in Oso, Obama promised to stick with the families whose lives were devastated when the rain-soaked hillside gave way.
"The whole country's thinking about you, and we're going to make sure that we're there every step of the way as we go through the grieving, the mourning, the recovery," he said.
Gov. Jay Inslee has asked Obama to declare a major disaster in the state, making it eligible for federal financial aid, including help covering the costs of temporary housing, home repairs and the loss of uninsured property, The Associated Press says.
NPR's Martin Kaste, reporting from the disaster scene, says the site still resembles a muddy bombing range.
"The great mounds of dirt and broken trees are dwarfed by the 600-foot-tall failed hillside where they came from," he reports on Morning Edition. "You see wheels sticking out of the mud, in random spots, detached from their cars. There's a house that looks like it's been through a trash compactor; National Guardsmen gingerly climb over it, probing the gaps with sticks."
Kaste says the stretch of Highway 530 that was inundated by mud and debris will take months to clear, and maybe longer to rebuild, according to the state Department of Transportation.
"Alongside the usual yellow ribbons for the slide's victims, you're starting to see protest signs, calling for speedier action," Kaste says.
"Anger festers about what might have been done better to warn residents, or protect the community from the slide, which killed 41 people and left two still missing. And fear haunts the voices of many people just miles from the impact zone, who now look up at the steep Cascade mountains with different eyes."