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The Clouds and Beyond

Submitted by on 09 Mar 2012 – 15:47

The Clouds and BeyondProfessor David De Roure, Professor in the e-Research Centre, Oxford; and UK National Strategic Director for Digital Social Science, UK

IT infrastructure provision is an ecosystem, underpinned by evolving technologies in data storage, networks, computation and software. We see this evolution in front of our eyes, with more powerful computers and smarter phones. But behind the scenes something very interesting has happened: it’s now possible for our smaller and smaller devices to access very large and generically useful computer facilities – our so-called Cloud providers.

Cloud computing is enabling companies and institutions to buy in the IT provision they need, with relative ease and when they need it, rather than having to build and maintain their own IT infrastructure. This is a blessing for a start-up: instead of investing in hardware and support they can just buy what they need on demand, and be highly responsive to their emerging customer demands. Meanwhile the providers benefit from economies of scale as they invest to meet the “elastic” demands of numerous and diverse users, delivering a cost-effective (and energy-efficient) provision. Furthermore, new businesses emerge delivering services over Cloud.

A clear win for some! But the ecosystem is of course a socio-technical one, and Cloud sits less comfortably in certain places for organisational reasons.  As a keen observer of the ecosystem I often see the following four restrictive factors at play:

Disintermediation. Companies and institutions with existing IT departments often react as if threatened, rather than embracing an opportunity for positive change. This is a classic response to disintermediation and needs organisations to be forward- not backward-thinking.

Confidence. Putting all our IT eggs in one cloud basket creates a dependency on one external provider and raises security questions too. This really is not a new problem, and in the Cloud world migration is more practical, but it takes time for confidence, practice and standards to grow.

Jurisdiction. Using computing resources located in a different geographical and legal territory is a genuine barrier. Cloud providers could be better at giving control and guarantees. This is an argument for national facilities but it’s also an argument for better legal frameworks – and that’s a specific action for Europe.

Distraction. For any company or institution there are pressing problems that Cloud doesn’t solve and it may seem like a distraction. Indeed, some of today’s important IT problems, like data management or High Performance Computing, don’t seem to be eased by Cloud.  It isn’t a universal panacea, but IT decision-makers are foolish to neglect it.

To guide us we should look at the future of the ecosystem – not always something we’re good at with disruptive technologies. Some people dismiss Cloud as the new shiny thing, the latest fashion that will pass overhead. But, whatever it may be called in the future as the industry promotes new labels, this is a technology that is here to stay. And as new companies are born in the Cloud world, be they consumers, providers or new intermediaries, they will compete in this global Darwinian ecosystem where denial could be perilous.

Perhaps the single most important thing that’s happening in the ecosystem is not Cloud computing per se, but rather a shift in thinking and practice that is epitomised by the Cloud, Web 2.0 and indeed the appstore and marketplace. It’s about agility and responsiveness, it’s about empowerment and innovation, and it comes from the flexibility and ease of use of today’s hardware and software combined with deepening digital participation of all stakeholders.

Whatever steps we take for Cloud should ensure this prosperity too. This requires different organisational policies, structures and behaviours. Decision-making must occur in an understanding of this profound socio-technical paradigm shift that is now well in progress.  When an investment or policy is proposed it must be tested against the new thinking: Can we buy this IT provision in from somewhere else? Have you really looked at all the alternatives? Is this truly a forward-thinking investment or policy change?

Europe must ensure that the circumstances in its ecosystem are conducive to Cloud and to this changing model.  This means specific actions to encourage activity and confidence, but also facilitating a flourishing ecosystem where IT providers and consumers can “co-evolve” – by reducing barriers, like today’s legal patchwork, and avoiding the creation of any new ones.