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Cloud Computing: Its not just about access from anywhere

Article first published as Cloud Computing: It’s Not Just About Access From Anywhere on Technorati.

Too many extolling the virtues of cloud computing are ignoring its most transformational benefits

Cloud computing has definitely moved into the mainstream. You now see commercials from Microsoft, Cisco, IBM and others every evening on prime time Cable TV. CNBC has created a Cloud Computing Special Report for investors to learn more about it. Even government agencies are now moving to cloud-based solutions.

Unfortunately, one of the most touted reasons we see for using cloud computing – that it provides universal access to data and applications from the Internet – has nothing to do with what cloud computing actually is. This is simply what web-based applications have been doing since the 1990s. True cloud computing offers a whole lot more.

In October 2009, The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) published an excellent definition of cloud computing that calls out five essential characteristics that separate clouds from simple remotely hosted, web-based computing models:

  1. On-demand self-service
  2. Broad network access
  3. Resource pooling
  4. Rapid elasticity
  5. Measured service

I know, some of these terms are mouthful – especially to those who do “live and breathe” technology. However, they remove so much of the work and complexity that has so frequently made management of computing so painful and costly:

On-demand Self-Service (Think “Now”): With on on-demand self-service, you do not need to ask your provider to execute an “IT project” to enable you to use your application (or update it) to support a new business development. You can do whatever you need, when you need it – without the cost and delay of overhead managing your vendor.

Broad Network Access (Think “Convenience”): This lets you work wherever you need, whenever you need – from your work or home computer, netbook, tablet, or smartphone. Traditionally, this was done through browser, to bypass the need to install local software. However, the rise of (cloud-based) App Stores now allows us to install richer applications to access our data – wherever we are, on-demand.

These first two characteristics are what most people think of when talking about cloud computing. However, it is the next three characteristics that make true clouds stand out:

Resource Pooling (Think “Black Box”): Somewhere far away IT people are managing shared, redundant infrastructure across many data centers. They manage maintenance, business continuity, elimination of failures and bottlenecks, etc. You gain all of the benefit of these large-scale investments in time and resources – but without the need to do any work.

Rapid Elasticity (Think “No Limits”): You never have to worry about capacity planning. If you suddenly get a surge in traffic (due to an emergency or unexpected popularity) the computing resources you need are automatically – and immediately – available. You avoid slow-downs, timeouts and outages that waste time, cause frustration and turn away customers.

Measured Service (Think “Value”): Pay only for what you use – and no more. Rather than paying 100% for servers that you only use at 20% utilization, you pay for the exact number of resources you use, when you use them. The ideal cloud providers charge usage in terms that everyday people – not just IT systems administrators – understand and value.

cloudcomputing-180pxsWhen explaining these cloud computing characteristics to those whose “day jobs” are not in tech, I like to use the electricity analogy. When you buy a new television, you do not call the power company and ask them to initiate a project to set up your television. You simply plug it in and begin using it. If you don’t like where it is in your house, you unplug it, move it to a different room, and plug it in again. At the end of the month, you don’t pay for the power company’s generator and labor investments; you pay for the extra kilowatt-hours your television used.

Services that meet all five of these characteristics are so much more convenient and valuable than legacy computing models. That’s why cloud computing has the potential to be so transformational.

What if airplanes never flew again? Five innovations that would happen

Eyjafjallajökull_volcanic_ash_compositeThis week the UK airspace was closed for six days due to the Eyjafjallajökull volcano. That may not seem like much. However, it disrupted many lives and business trips (including one of mine) and led to excited caller to BBC Radio to declare, “I saw a plane today!” when the airspace re-opened. This led me to ask, “What would happen if airplanes could never fly again?”

A lot of economists have already sounded off on how this would affect trade. This is very a short-term view. As “necessity is the mother of invention,” I would prefer to focus on how this would affect innovation. Five technology areas stand out. (The last two may surprise you.)

1. e-Paper would become the standard business transactions

For two decades we have been talking about moving from paper to electronic records for management of everything from official documents and records to electronic signatures to collection of drug discovery data. However, paper is still everywhere. (A solicitor recently told me that computers are increasing use of paper, as UK law requires a paper copy of all computer transmission of legal documents.)

Without airplanes the concept of “next-day mail” would be gone. We would no longer be able to “FedEx” contracts back and forth to each other for signature (something often done for everything from employment to business contracts). This would force people to make a decision: either slow down business or move to electronic records. Money would drive the shift to use of electronic paper (laws would follow the money incentive).

However, it would not be the same way we do it today: scan a PDF and email it. We would get real, easy-to-use electronic records management with legally binding biometric signatures. This would not be expensive technology, it would be a service that your local post office, UPS, FedEx and DHL would provide (to compensate for their loss of “next-day mail” revenue).

2. Telepresence would become a commodity

Without airplanes we really would no longer be able to fly to meetings, conferences and collaborative work sessions. We would have two choices: co-located with everyone with whom we work or actually use remote collaboration technology. Our world is too global to go back to co-location.

However, today’s collaboration technology is too far from a real face-to-face experience to let us stop travelling. There is new telepresence technology; however, it is too expensive for everyday use.

This need would drive something that looks like the virtual reality units you see on TV, but acts more like telepresence. You would put on glasses, a microphone and ear bugs and plug them into your computer to virtually attend conferences, meetings, etc. You would use your mouse to point to things to change (imagine lots of mouse pointers on a screen as once). You would also have the same visual quality that you have in person. Finally, all of this would be available for a small monthly fee.

3. Telemedicine would become routine

Today if you get sick or injured and need a specialist to operate on you, you get on an airplane and visit his or her office. Without airplanes, this would no longer be possible. The answer would be telemedicine.

This IS different from telepresence in many ways. You would still go to your local doctor’s office. However, you would be diagnosed remotely, perhaps by a distributed team of specialists. You would then go to your local hospital, where the team would operate on you by robotically operated equipment. Transactionally, the process would be the same (whereas in commodity telepresence the transactions would change). What would be different is removal of the travel.

This innovation would benefit those most who cannot travel easily today, such as soldiers on battlefields and people living in remote and rural locations. These benefits would be so profound that one would almost wish we were forced to innovate them sooner.

4. We would develop high-temperature superconductors

Virtual placeholders for travel and shipping can meet many needs (and make us Greener). However, sometimes we will need to get places far away. Often we will want to do this without taking a long “road trip” or ocean cruise. We will need high-speed rail and boat transit.

To get true high-speed rail we will need magnetic-levitated (MAGLEV) rail technology. For high-speed sea travel (I am visualising a high-speed submarine—it may sound odd, but it is all driven by Navier-Stokes equations) you would need magneto-hydro-dynamic (MHD) drive technology. Both of these would be much more powerful and cost-effective if we had high-temperature superconductors.

The loss of air travel would likely create a large enough economic incentive to pursue high-speed rail and sea travel. This in turn, would fund research hand development into magnetism, leading to break-through in high-temperate superconductivity.

5. Commercialisation of space travel would finally begin

High-speed rail and sea travel will work for the general public. However it will still not be fast enough for special circumstances required by heads of state, the military and even billionaire chief executives. They will want to fly places.

This will require commercialisation in threes areas space travel: lower cost propulsion, re-usable vehicles that feel more like airplanes, and the ability to land these without “splashing down” in the ocean. We are already seeing forays in this area; look at Spaceship One and Virgin Galactic. This is technology that operates like a plane, but does not breathe air (and would not be affected by volcanic ash).

Loss of airplanes would lead to an explosion in this market, driving much competition. Perhaps we would see something like the scene from Kubrick’s 2001, when Dr. Floyd takes a commercial flight to the Moon (although it would not be on Eastern).

However, airplanes are flying again (all of my colleagues will be back in the office next week). Hopefully we will still find a way to make these innovations happen. Each of them would make the world a more interesting place.

Author’s Note: I currently lead commercialisation and operations for Cmed Technology, a company that provides cloud-based electronic data management solutions to aid drug discovery. I have previously worked with many of these technologies in past work at Amgen, AOL, Lockheed Martin and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.