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The Future is Distributed


As with marketing and journalism, so with computing. The latest term to be riding the hype cycle in tech circles is Cloud Computing. The notion that describes a scenario where computing services come not from the PCs on user’s desks, or even from the companies they work for, but from servers which are located elsewhere on the internet. It’s facilitated by a few key trends, notably improved network performance, a growing acceptance of networked ideas and models, and the ever increasing efficiences in data distribution and storage – especially cost efficiences. One of the trends providing impetus behind the whole ‘Free’ debate is the corollary to Moore’s Law which is driving the fall in the price of data processing power, bandwidth and storage so that (to quote Chris Anderson) "the trend lines that determine the cost of doing business online all point the same way: to zero". In his column in Sunday’s Observer, John Naughton paraphrased from Nicholas Carr’s new book on the concept of Cloud Computing, The Big Switch:

"Once upon a time, every industrial firm had its own generator; but eventually organisations plugged into a grid with cheap electricity pumped out by specialist generating companies. Something similar, Carr claims, is happening now to computing: it’s becoming a public utility, rather than a service that firms provide for themselves"

I like this analogy, and the column is well worth a read. Naughton raises a few potential blockers, namely the reticence of some organisations to have their data sat on someone else’s servers, the vulnerability of the network (citing the fallout from the recent You Tube blocking episode in Pakistan, the Estonian cyber-attacks and issues with Amazon’s S3 cloud computing service) and the environmental impact of having great big server farms (I’m less convinced by this though – if drammatically increased demand for data storage capacity is an inevitability does the ability to minimise the environmental impact automatically change according to where it is hosted?).

But this trend makes sense to me. It ties in to a related trend that Chris Anderson identifies: that all kinds of businesses are rapidly becoming digital businesses and so benefitting from technology’s deflationary effects. The increasing ubiquity of digital business means that there are more and more examples of networked models populated by loosely-coupled value chains where at least some elements are free:

"To follow the money, you have to shift from a basic view of a market as a matching of two parties — buyers and sellers — to a broader sense of an ecosystem with many parties, only some of which exchange cash." (Chris Anderson)

I have a feeling we are still not appreciating the real potential power of the network, or its self-perpetuating nature. As Naughton says – a comprehensively networked world would exponentially increase the world’s reliance on the internet. But is it not inevitable that communications will follow this path? Cloud marketing anyone?

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