Clouds are grey, fuzzy things that rain on you. Only meteorologists, generally, can get excited about clouds. And young children who stare up at the sky and try to imagine the shapes they can see.
The IT industry is a lot like the small child, gazing into the sky. We have taken the deliberately fuzzy metaphor of ‘the cloud’ and projected a variety of disparate visions onto it.
The cloud, in IT terms, can refer to a storage infrastructure. Or it can be an application development platform. It can be a computing utility. Apparently, whatever my company wants to sell, I can call it ‘cloud’ and it will become current and maybe even sexy.
Yet few of these shapes that are being imagined onto the cloud are actually
very exciting. As some industry sceptics have been pointing out, we already have
storage infrastructures and application development platforms.
A computing utility might differ in degree from an old, timeshared mainframe, but it isn’t a fundamentally new idea. So of what use, really, is the IT cloud?
Repeating past visions
Most visions of the IT cloud so far simply project forward our current systems
perhaps making them slightly easier to access and manage.
I think these visions are missing something. Pervasive access is good, and more manageability would be great although moving into the cloud creates about as many management and governance challenges as it solves.
However, the real opportunity for the channel and other IT players is that what cloud computing creates is not in fact ‘in the cloud’ at all but in the periphery.
The reason the cloud is different to the mainframe is that it is connected to smart devices. Under the traditional mainframe model of computing, all truth and control lies at the centre, to be distributed via dumb terminals.
Instead, the cloud interconnects a network of devices, which are capable of gathering, enriching and processing complex data sets in their own right.
Recently released mobile phones, for example, can gather a huge amount of information about their environment. ‘Extras’ such as cameras, accelerometers and GPS chips mean our phones are as much sensory devices as they are communications accessories.
When this data is combined with that collected from our various social networks, fellow commuters, other environmental sensors, and so on, then some really interesting applications become possible.
That is what the cloud could be; it could be a good way to provide pervasive memory and interconnectivity for smart devices. It could support them and hence the people using them to understand what is going on around them and, from there, to know how to respond effectively to events and opportunities.
The cloud could also provide historical context, taking sensory data provided by various devices and mining it for trends and patterns that could inform future actions.
There are many challenges for this vision, both in processing the amounts of data involved and in managing important concerns such as privacy. But if we are going to set out a vision, let us make our definition of the cloud a little more exciting than “like a mainframe, only fuzzier”.
Graham Oakes is an independent consultant based in Cheshire
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