Head in the Clouds

I just finished reading a white paper from researchers at UC Berkeley's RAD Lab entitled "Above the Clouds: A Berkeley View of Cloud Computing", and my interest in cloud computing has been reinvigorated.

For a while I have believed that web based applications would eventually surpass locally installed software. Around ten years ago when Macromedia Flash 3 was released with JavaScript support I thought that I would be able to build some great online applications, but the technology really wasn't quite ready. Now, with technologies such as AJAX and client-side browser storage, the concept may be nearing critical mass. Seeing what Vivek Kundra did for Washington D.C. as their CTO certainly made me feel that large organizations could be ready for cloud computing. But, I know that before private corporations can implement the technology they must first understand it, which is why I feel this white paper is valuable.

The Berkeley paper establishes definitions that bound the scope of the associated technologies, which is very important. It frequently seems to be the case that whenever new technological ideas are being discussed and formed, vendors simply print out new stickers to slap on existing products in order to market them as leading edge technologies. And, if you consider that the use of cloud computing could reduce the number or size of data centers at major corporations, then you can start to understand why computer manufacturers could be threatened by this disruptive concept. It seems reasonable to me to expect that cloud computing providers would find efficiencies that could effectively cut into the lucrative corporate maintenance agreements that server manufacturers love. So, the paper offers knowledge for IT managers to defend themselves against vendor claims.

After the in depth definition of what cloud computing is and explaining why it's time has come, the paper goes on to present some obstacles and opportunities. The third obstacle, data confidentiality and auditability, really struck me. This has been the most common contradiction I have heard to the cloud computing concept. I have long felt that certain SaaS applications, such as Gmail, have provided better protection than similar in-house corporate solutions. But, when I present that idea the follow up response is usually that the company would loose control of their data. I usually quit debating at that point, as it seems to be a sort of straw man argument. And, arguing against their point would be viewed as criticizing their infrastructure or staff, and that would immediately make them oppose the idea even more.

I feel that in the long run some companies, probably smaller ones, will switch to cloud computing to reduce their overhead, thereby gaining a competitive advantage. Then, the larger companies will be forced to think hard about the value of controlling their own data. Maybe a recession will help to accelerate this process.

That is the part of cloud computing that I enjoy the most, the idea that cloud computing can effectively level the playing field for smaller, more agile software development companies. And, I think that this will further encourage innovation. I know that I will certainly continue to write applications for Google's App Engine, and maybe someday I will develop a real crowd pleaser.
Published: 2009-03-09
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