Cloud Computing continues to be a very hot subject. At the end of June, I participated in a conference in Cambridge on The Promise and Reality of Cloud Computing, sponsored by Xconomy - a communications company whose tag line is Business + Technology in the Exponential Economy.
The sense of the meeting was succintly captured by Bob Buderi, founder and CEO of XConomy: "There is a clear consensus that there is no real consensus on what cloud computing is," following his earlier summary:
"Our speakers put cloud computing in its historical context - from the Cambrian explosion all the way through the rise of electric utilities. They showed how businesses today can use this emerging technology for cost-effective and powerful computing solutions. And they also gave us a feel for the real paradigm shift the cloud could bring to the computing world, especially how large software companies might find themselves vulnerable to disruption (although some firms are still in denial about this)."
In other words, something big and profound seems to be going on, although we are not totally sure what it is yet.
Some of us feel that cloud computing may very well be The Next Big Thing - one of those massive changes that the IT industry goes through from time to time that really shake things up - like the advent of personal computers in the 1980s and the Web in the next decade. Others - a minority in this meeting - feel that this is the IT industry engaged in one of its periodic hype cycles.
Nicholas Carr nicely framed the historical shift to cloud computing in his Xconomy keynote, which was based on his recent book, The Big Switch. Carr first talked about the evolution of power plants in the 19th century. In the early days, companies usually generated their own power with steam engines and dynamos. But with the rise of highly sophisticated, professionally run electric utilities, companies stopped generating their own power and plugged into the newly built electric grid.
IT, said Carr, is the next great technology that is going through a similar transformation. Many IT capabilities, now handled in a distributed way, will be centralized in highly industrialized, efficient, scalable data centers - Clouds - which should free companies to invest in innovation where it really matters to their business. Nick acknowledged that IT clouds are quite different in nature from electricity - more complex and diverse in the services they offer. So it is too early to tell how IT clouds will evolve.
My personal feeling is that there will be a variety of providers of cloud services - from new companies that specialize in innovative services aimed at particular industries, to enterprises that take advantage of those processes and services they are really good at, - e.g., payments in banking, logistics in shipping, reservations in transportation - and start new businesses that service their own needs as well as those of others in the marketplace. This is already happening.
IT organizations will have to become much more professional, disciplined and efficient in their management of data centers, including energy usage. The data center is undergoing a phase of industrialization similar to what happened in manufacturing twenty years ago. If you stay behind, your management costs and quality of service will not be competitive.
At the conference, there was quite a bit of discussion about the relationship of cloud computing to computing-on-demand offerings, such as Amazon Web Services, and software-as-a-service application platforms, such as salesforce.com. Some have said that this spells the death of software.
I prefer to think of what is happening as the long-needed evolution of application software to something that is far more usable by humans. When virtualizing applications to be used by people who care nothing about computers or technology - as is mostly the case with Clouds - the key thing we want to virtualize or hide from the user is complexity.
Most people want to deal with an application or a service, not software. We want those applications and services to be as intuitive as possible, and we want to have to know only as much as we need in order to use them. We don't want to have to worry about extraneous error messages we don't understand or new software releases we don't know what to do with. We want a quality experience, as we do with other things in work and life we enjoy using.
Most of us would agree that while computers have been very useful, using them has been far from satisfying – sort of like what driving a car must have been like a hundred years ago. They got us to where we wanted to go, but they also kept breaking down and required constant attention.
This is far from the death of software. In fact, it will take lots of innovative software to make computers and computing applications usable, let alone enjoyable to use The more intelligent we want them to be - that is, intuitive, exhibiting common sense and not making us have to constantly take care of them - the more smart software it will take. But with cloud computing, our expectation is that all that software will be virtualized or hidden from us and taken care of by systems and/or professionals that are somewhere else - out there in The Cloud.
In my Xconomy presentation, following Nick Carr, I also framed cloud computing in sort of historical terms. First, I think of what is going on with IT as a kind of Cambrian Explosion, which is the period over 500 million years ago when the rate of evolution accelerated by an order of magnitude, giving rise to both more complex animals and a far greater diversity of organisms. This was at least partly due to the fact that the cell had been perfected and standardized over the preceding billion years, so evolution could now focus its energies in using these essentially commoditized cells in far more complex and diverse ways.
Looking at the Cambrian Explosion as a metaphor, we can think of digital components as following the path of cells in biology. In its first few decades, the IT industry spent a considerable fraction of its energies developing the basic components. But now that they are essentially standardized, commoditized and good enough for most purposes, we are seeing both the emergence of massively scalable systems - i.e., cloud data centers – as well as a huge increase in the number and diversity of IT-based devices connected to the cloud. These include mobile phones, sensors, cars, consumer electronics, medical equipment, as well as classic personal computers.
The other historical arc in which I place cloud computing is much more recent. To me, cloud computing is the natural evolution of the Internet and World Wide Web. The nascent Web of the mid 1990s enabled us to do things we had never been able to do before - like listening to a NY Mets live baseball game from my hotel room in Tokyo, or letting people around the world follow the progress of the Deep Blue chess match in real time. It so felt like magic that we did not notice how creaky the Internet infrastructure really was - slow, dial-up access; long response times; being tethered to a PC and a phone line.
Then the bubble burst, on several fronts. The speculative, exuberant dot-com economy collapsed. We found out about corporate and financial malfeasance. We experienced 9/11 and the Afghan and Iraq conflicts. The world now felt much more dangerous, competitive and complex.
Through it all, the Internet and Web, as well as IT in general, kept making progress, correcting many of their original deficiencies, and introducing Web 2.0, Massively Multiplayer Online Games, a whole new generation of sophisticated mobile devices and sensors, and ubiquitous broadband. This is the market context in which cloud computing is emerging.
No more funny web sites with flaming logos, charming old ladies selling olive oil from Italy or adorable little girls downloading the assembly instructions for their Christmas bicycle presents - all really cute vignettes from our e-business-era ads. The problems we are now tackling with cloud computing, as well as with powerful supercomputers and other advanced technologies, are much more serious for business and society: energy and the environment; healthcare; learning; national security; globally integrated enterprises; emerging markets; innovation and economic competitiveness.
Finally, we need to pose the question: What are we going to do with all these cloud-delivered services?
In 1996, in the early days of the Internet’s explosive growth, people were asking a similar question about the then young and relatively primitive Internet. Lou Gerstner who was then IBM Chairman and CEO, gave a very nice answer to this question in a keynote speech in December of 1996, which is as relevant today as it was then.
"I'm often asked by IBM customers where the Net is headed. I tell them: Clearly, connectivity is important - but it isn't the real issue. Let's say soon there will be 1 billion ways to get on the Net. Then what? What will these connected millions do? What will they want to do? What will they value? And what will they be willing to pay for?
The answer is - all the things they do today. Buy and sell; bank; follow legislation; work together; access entertainment, earn a college degree, renew a driver's license. In other words, they'll want applications. Not shrink-wrapped ‘bloatware.’ And certainly not static information posted on Web sites."
Nearly twelve years later, and with a far better Internet and overall IT infrastructure, we can do a lot more. But perhaps we can summarize the expectations we now have for those cloud services in a few words: simpler, safer and smarter.