One of the subjects of the day in the tech world is the idea of “cloud computing” – the move towards using applications (webmail, blogs, wikis etc) and services (data storage, application hosting etc) that are located on the internet rather than on your own machine. For enterprises this means a system that can scale to meet requirements as they change, paying only for what you use, no large upfront investment and less in-house support costs.
This has become possible because access to the internet has become ubiquitous (at least in the developed world.) Physical location is no longer relevant, as long as you have a good speed connection.
In the years ahead, more and more of the information-processing tasks that we rely on, at home and at work, will be handled by big data centers located out on the internet – and the scope of what can be done in this way is constantly evolving. The nature and economics of computing in the next ten (twenty, thirty… fifty) years will change as dramatically as those of mechanical power did in the early years of the last century. This will impact the whole of society as the way of life is increasingly underpinned by technology.
This subject is dealt with in the recent book “The Big Switch” by Nicolas Carr. The book is really a book of two parts. The first half looks back to the time when electricity first became available, and the impact that it had, especially on industry. The real revolution came when companies stopped producing their own power and hooked into the power grid, where electricity was produced at large power stations. Electricity went from a competitive advantage for a business (those who had it over those who didn’t) to a utility service for all.
It is a good history lesson, told with vigour and an evident affection for the characters involved. The comparison is made clearly enough without the author repeating it so often that it bears down on you, making you lose the will to live.
In The Big Switch, the chapter “Goodbye, Mr Gates” looks at the threats posed to Microsoft’s dominance by Google and Amazon amongst others, coming to the conclusion:
The time of Gates and the other great software programmers who wrote the code of the PC age has come to an end. The future of computing belongs to the new utilitarians.
Part two of the book is called “Living in the Cloud” and, after a potted history of the internet, Carr starts looking at the more social implications of these momentous changes he has signaled – and he doesn’t like a lot of the possibilities. The erosion of the middle class, cultural impoverishment (especially the decline of traditional high quality journalism), the threats posed by the weakness of the internet’s infrastructure, the end of anonymity and privacy and Google’s ultimate aim to meld the search engine with the human brain to create a new artificial intelligence (that was news to me…).
The book is not earth-shattering, worth a read – but one for paperback.
He also looks at the state of the IT support industry in 10 years’ time in his article “IT in 2018: From Turing’s Machine to the Computing Cloud”:
No doubt, utility computing and Web apps pose big challenges to corporate IT departments and workers. They overturn long-held assumptions about IT, and they threaten some traditional jobs. But it’s important to see that for the companies that rely on computer systems, this shift is all to the good. After all, it means, at the very least, a proliferation of new choices for how IT needs can be fulfilled. And it means, in the long run, the freeing up of considerable amounts of capital that have long been sunk into privately owned and maintained computing machinery. And in the end it gives workers greater power and flexibility to gather, analyze, manipulate, and share information – which is, of course, why businesses use computers in the first place.
Initially it sounds daunting, but when you think about it, the phrases “it’s important to see that for the companies that rely on computer systems, this shift is all to the good” and “in the end it gives workers greater power and flexibility to gather, analyze, manipulate, and share information” point to precisely the things that are needed to support a successful business – one which is flexible and builds innovation into the system – according to the book The New Age of Innovation (reviewed here). The time frames are roughly right too. Carr is looking to 2018, the authors of the New Age… point to 2015.
“Cloud computing” is going to go a long way in the next decade – and, when it comes down to it, the majority of people won’t even notice, probably won’t even care.
Wikipedia: Cloud Computing
Rough Type: Alan Turing, cloud computing and IT’s future
Google: What Is Google App Engine?
Apple: MobileMe (and to show this “cloud” business is not easy, check out the related Apple’s Bad Day and the blog Apple set up when MobileMe got off to a very shaky start)
The Economist: Down on the server farm
Kevin Kelly: Follow the Moon
Computing: Concept of cloud still shrouded in mystery