Cloud computing has become one of the biggest buzz words in recent years and, if we believe the hype, it has the potential to change the way in which computing resources are accessed by businesses and the public at large. This entry introduces cloud computing and examines some of the trends put forward by the industry.
The term “cloud computing” was derived from voice telephony jargon, when networks moved from being circuit-switched to packet-switched, and the image of a “cloud” was frequently used in diagrams to represent the Internet component of a network. Cloud computing therefore speaks to the ability to access computer resources online – via the cloud. Users are typically not required to have specific hardware or software installed (other than a compatible Internet browser), as services can be accessed at anytime and from any device. An everyday example of a cloud application is web-based email service, such as those offered by Hotmail, Gmail, and Yahoo. Users are not required to install any software: they just set up an account and the service can be used at any time and from any device.
Cloud computing is available in many flavours, and many permutations exist, but it possesses some core characteristics, which is the source of its appeal. They include the following:
- Users can access cloud services as and when needed
- Clouds allows resources to be pooled together and shared by multiple users, which can increase efficiency and cost-effectiveness
- Services are quickly scalable to meet user demand
- Service use can be measured and paid for on a usage basis
- Users access services and use the facilities independent of each other.
In the industry considerable energy and resources are being expended to capitalise on the interest and enthusiasm around cloud computing. Clouds are expected to revolutionise computing as we know it, and as expected the pundits have weighed in. Five of the stated trends on how computing will change as a result of clouds are discussed below, and where necessary the likely impact on the region is considered.
Trend #1: Cloud computing, like the electricity/utility model, will be the way all computing services are delivered
The claim: According to industry experts, a paradigm shift is occurring in the computing environment thanks to cloud technology. Reference is constantly being drawn to the electricity/utility model, where the electricity grid replaced the individual ownership and use of generators, and customers are billed for services on a usage basis. In summary, cloud computing and the use of cloud services will become ubiquitous.
This expectation is fraught with difficulties. First, although the electricity/utility model is being referenced for illustrative purposes, it is no longer considered the most efficient means of delivering electricity. The sector is now encouraging personal generation, e.g. via solar power, with excess being sold to the grid. This approach removes some of the burden of responsibility from power companies to accommodate the increasing demand for energy and allows them to better control their costs. More importantly however, consumers are being given greater control and choice.
In the cloud environment, security, privacy and matters related to control of information are particularly grave concerns, which have not yet been comprehensively addressed by the industry. Vendors have tackled them differently – some better than others. To mitigate some of those weaknesses, thereby giving users greater control and choice, there is now emphasis on “private clouds”, where individual persons or businesses build and operate their own infrastructure that provide cloud services for their needs. However, this popular choice can be construed as already defeating some of the stated benefits of cloud computing, since its main thrust is shared access by the public at large.
Trend #2: Cloud computing is levelling the playing field in the vendor market.
The claim: Smaller vendors are able to compete more equitably with their larger (and more established) counterparts, since the costs of getting services to customers are considerably lower.
While this trend could be true in quite a few instances, this might not be the case for smaller vendors that serve niche markets or provide customised solutions. Clouds, especially those delivering Software as a Service (SaaS), generally use a one-to-many mode of delivery and would require a critical mass of users for profitability. However, the relative success that smaller software vendors enjoy might be derived from being able to meet the unique needs of their customers. Hence use of the cloud model by such vendors could ultimately undermine their ability to serve their customers, especially if those customers are prepared to pay for individual service.
Further, although cloud computing might assist smaller vendors to access markets, their resources would still be considerably less than their larger competitors. It would be foolhardy for smaller players to go head-to-head with their better-financed counterparts. Instead, it would be critical for those vendors to identify niche markets and to distinguish themselves from the larger players, in order to maintain viable businesses.
Trend #3: Utility computing is now the name of the game
The claim: Clouds are leading to “utility computing”, where PCs are becoming “computer appliances”, requiring no add-on software and accessing all services and facilities online.
Current trends in PC design seem support this assertion, as many of the economically-priced laptops for example do not have optical drives installed. Further, with low priced and high-speed broadband (100 Mbit/s download) available in most developed countries, software can easily be downloaded from the Internet and accessing cloud services would be a breeze.
However, in our neck of the woods, as in many developing countries, basic broadband service, even according to the FCC definition (4 Mbit/s download and 1 Mbit/s upload), is still costly if available, and not particularly reliable. Many of us are unable to sustain reasonable connectivity in terms of speed and reliability in order to successfully install software from the Internet or to use certain Internet services. Hence the “utility computer” is not really suited to our environment, and may even limit our ability to participate in this digital and global age.
Interestingly, with the global proliferation of mobile phones, and the fact that smart phones, tablets and other mobile devices, are becoming the primary or initial computing terminal for a considerable number of users, serious deficiencies have been identified with some cloud applications on those devices. For example, there is limited functionality when manipulating documents accessed in SaaS applications, such as office/productivity services.
Although there might be ways circumventing such problems, a key issue is the fact that cloud services have been designed to be accessed by PCs and not mobile devices. So although the mobile device, with its relatively limited storage and computing power, is the medium that could greatly benefit from cloud computing, there are some functionality issues still to be resolved.
Trend #4: Purchase of add-on equipment and standalone software is no longer necessary
The claim: Business models based solely on the prolific sale of add-on equipment, software, software licensing, etc, will be virtually eliminated, since popular software, as well as computing and infrastructural elements, are all becoming available on clouds.
Into the foreseeable future, most users will continue to acquire equipment, especially storage, if only as backup purposes. The price of secondary storage is continuing to decrease while storage size is increasing, and those devices offer users a cost-effective option for backing up their machines or to store large files, for example. More importantly, since many businesses are opting to establish their own private clouds and/or to maintain their own internal servers, if only for sensitive or mission-critical information and services, and in addition to any public cloud services they might purchase, there will still be a market for network/infrastructural elements.
With regard to software, vendors are removing optical disk drives from PC notebooks, especially their cheaper offerings and those geared towards lightness and increased mobility. Further, software vendors such as Microsoft are moving away from supplying recovery/installation disks – the software is either pre-loaded on new PCs or can be downloaded from its website.
However, in developing countries, as mentioned in trend #3, broadband speeds tend to be not fast, affordable, or reliable enough to allow efficient download of software. This situation may place the Caribbean at a distinct disadvantage in comparison to more developed countries, especially as it relates to productivity, innovation and competitiveness.
Trend #5: The need for in-house IT specialists is virtually eliminated
The claim: With infrastructural and software needs being taken out of offices, thanks to the use of clouds, the in-house or outsourced IT department/specialist will become redundant.
Almost irrespective of the size or type of business, most IT specialists spend the majority of their time addressing problems that individual employees are having and undertaking routine updates and maintenance. These would include addressing “software glitches” and programme hiccups, reinstalling programmes and updating licences, ensuring backups are done, and replacing equipment and computer parts. In moving certain IT services to clouds, many of these tasks will become the cloud provider’s responsibility to resolve, thereby freeing up the specialist’s time to address other issues, such as system and process optimisation.
In many cases the in-house IT specialist should still be a key resource in the business’ IT strategy. Although efforts are ongoing to establish standards for the delivery of cloud services, the onus is and will continue to be on the user to ensure that the services satisfy their needs and complement their operating environment. The specialist becomes invaluable in this situation: to specify the needs of the business, and to perform the necessary due diligence on the providers that are being considered. Additionally, the specialist can be the contact point with cloud providers, since most employees’ might not necessarily know what pertinent information should be communicated to the provider to have a matter expediently resolved. Further, depending on the provider’s response and/or the seriousness of the problem, the specialist might be able to implement interim measures to minimise the inconvenience to the business. Finally, if the cloud services must be scalable in keeping with business demand at a given time, these needs must be projected and communicated to the provider. Thus a constant line of communication between the business and the provider must be maintained and can be done by the specialist.
In summary, cloud computing might not be having the anticipated impact on the ICT sector as initially envisaged. Businesses seem more prepared to implement private clouds, thus ignoring some of the stated benefits of public clouds. More critically, the availability of low-cost, high speed broadband has affected PC specifications and functionality. This latter issue can be detrimental to us in the Caribbean, since our infrastructure might not be sufficiently developed to allow us to reliably access software and other services over the Internet.