Heads in the clouds, doves, pigeons and cybermeters
Cloud computing, sky-hy-hype, data centres, cellphones and digital inclusion
Cloud computing, refers to the use of Internet (the ‘cloud’) not as a communications system, but as a way to access computing services one – most often – does not own, control or even understand. The information and the applications reside somewhere in the Internet cloud. Users access the applications they need and, using a simplified interface – Web browsers for example, request the services and data they need. Cloud computing really refers to a series of separate, but related concepts including Software as a Service (SaaS) and utility computing where one pays for usage as for electricity; a sort of ‘cybermeter’ measures the computing resources used. Most often, the computing resources that provide the cloud’s virtualised services and data storage are housed in vast data centres. This has made cloud computing a viable alternative for many users.
Google, Amazon, Yahoo!, Salesforce, IBM, Sun and Microsoft are among the best-known providers of cloud computing resources for individual users and large companies alike.
Cloud computing pops up with increasing regularity at industry events, emails, newsletters, newspapers, on the Net, discussions with cyber-geek friends. OK, I don’t deny it has great potential, but the awe and reverence with which some treat it – let’s face it we are not being showered with blessings from above – really puts me off.
There are pigeons and doves in this cloud. Doves are the good guys, the aristocrats of the family. Doves get the good jobs, they carry olive branches for the United Nations, they are the harbingers of peace and good tidings and they get to coo for lovers. Pigeon, on the other hand, are the bums of the family. Pigeons, sometimes called feathered rats, just get to sit on – and mess- statues, windowsills and unlucky passersby.
First, as it befits their rank, let’s talk about some of the ‘doves’ of cloud computing.
For some, cloud computing (let’s call it CC for now) is a great way to handle heavy peak traffic without investing too heavily in computing infrastructure that is idle most of the time. CC is also an effective way to obtain emergency backup. By maintaining a ‘mirror image’ of its systems and data at a data centre in the cloud, a company can often resume full operation within minutes of a major system outage.
By using CC resources, by paying for service only if and when needed, the costs for building and maintaining extra capacity are shared with many other users. CC applications can also greatly reduce the investment tied up in software and applications development. The large centrally managed CC data centres generally have staff dedicated to security and have effective, massive, backup for everything – hardware, software, applications, communications and data.
Major data centres also tend to be ‘greener’ than individual computing facilities, if for no other reason than they must work constantly to reduce their operational costs, especially energy consumption. Google, for example has one of the biggest solar panel installations in the United States. Data centres are looking seriously into alternate sources of energy including wind power to reduce both their cost and their carbon footprint. Then too, companies that use the cloud for peak demand or for backup tend to have smaller installations, use less energy and have smaller carbon footprints than they otherwise would.
All these uses are very important and they will grow. In the years to come, I believe there is another use which will eventually surpass these applications, but I will leave that for the end.
Let’s move on to the pigeons.
Despite the generally high level of security and backup, even the best and biggest operations can go down. Even Google’s enormous operation went down for 90 minutes earlier this year. Security, although the big centres have a good record, will still be a problem. Big centres are a tempting target for both terrorists and hackers – and they are sure to win a battle or two.
I like cloud computing but, in a sense, it reverses the personal computing revolution. The idea of putting complete control in the hands of users is more satisfying. Cloud computing takes away control and makes the user dependant on others. I can rationalise this in many ways – still, it doesn’t feel right. The more one uses the cloud, the more one depends upon data in someone else’s hands, upon applications picked and spoon-fed by a third party, the less freedom one has to pack up and move on to another supplier. I don’t like having to depend upon third party decision.
What happens if your personal cloud moves with the wind to another applications supplier, to another version – with another cost structure? What if your cloud supplier keels over and dies – what happens to your data? The economy goes bust; you have no job and can’t pay the rainmaker in the cloud – where do you stand then? How do you work? What happens to your data? What if your connection goes? Earlier this year several undersea cables were cut almost simultaneously; it has been convincingly denied, but some still suspect terrorists. What if terrorists or hackers strike, take out the system you use, and it is off the air for days or weeks?
I stopped writing this for a moment to take a call on Skype. I am a Skype fan. Every day, I speak with – and see -family and friends thousands of miles away and use it to keep in touch with my office, but the quality varies from great to downright rotten. This call was close to the rotten end of the range. It reminded me just how much cloud computing depends upon connections and servers – and how undependable and easily overloaded these both are. Performance and risk – in many respects, not all – are a lot easier to manage on a PC or at your own computing centre.
All considered, the best arguments for the cloud might be cost related, but without flat-rate subscriptions one can get ‘nickeled and dimed to death’. Micropayments for every little service or access, unless controlled, capped and predictable, can get out of hand. If you could have affordable access to everything you want in your own little box, why would you use the cloud?
Enough pigeons! The mobile phone is rapidly becoming – by default – the device most of the world’s people will use to access the Internet. The mobile phone is affordable and easy to use, limited in many ways, but not as limited as many of the people who use it. Sadly, a great percentage of the world’s population can barely read and write – if they can read at all. Windows, Explorer, Firefox, in fact almost every application many of us use regularly, are as beyond the grasp of non-readers as rocket science. Cloud applications tailored for the mobile phone, with visual and voice interfaces that can meet the needs of these people might well be a worldwide ‘killer app’ for cloud computing, but that’s a story for the next eLetter.
The next issue of Connect-World Global will be published later this month. This edition of Connect-World will be widely distributed to our reader base and, as well, at shows such as: Mobile World Congress (16-19 February 2009, Barcelona)and CTIA Wireless (April 1-3, 2009 Las Vegas)
The theme for this issue will be The information society 2015 – corporate responsibility and digital access for sustainable development..
The World Summit on the Information Society, WSIS, established a number of goals for the year 2015. Providing the world’s peoples with access – to connect the world’s people in even the remotest regions, its schools, governments, research centres, libraries hospitals and health centres, cultural centres, museums, post offices and archives – was the primary goal. One of the most important goals set by the WSIS calls for a world where, “more than half the world’s inhabitants have access to ICTs within their reach,” by 2015. The WSIS also called for, “ensuring that all of the world’s population have access to television and radio services”.
Providing digital access, as a way to achieve sustainable development, to half the world’s population within a decade is a grand ambition. It will take a mighty effort. Governments, international organizations and non-governmental organisations – NGOs, can do part of the job, but far from all of it. Much of this mighty effort will depend upon the world’s business enterprises. To complete this mission, new technologies, new hardware and software, new applications and content, manufacturing genius, financial resources and logistics that only private enterprise can efficiently provide, develop, deploy and manage will be needed.
What is corporate responsibility in this context? What can, and should, corporations do, then, to help achieve the ambitious WSIS goals? What are they already doing? How can businesses participate? Why should they participate? What will be the rewards and the costs? Is corporate responsibility – corporate participation in the building of the Information Society – good business? These are the questions Connect-World will ask global leaders.
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