Defining the Cloud
So, just what is the cloud? Is it merely a faster, better Internet? In a way, yes. Burrus explains it as a bubble of information that, unlike the files on your home PC or work computer, don’t live in just one place anymore. “Video, audio, graphs, e-mail, it’s as if it’s in a cloud all around you,” he says. “It’s a global cloud, and you can’t escape it – unless you can’t get reception.”
But there’s much more to it. Zubin Wadia, CTO of ImageWork Technologies, a leading provider of technology solutions to the City of New York and Fortune 500, and a strong believer in the cloud, points out that many of the most revolutionary aspects of cloud computing will be in the amazing ways we discover to leverage it.
“The technologies that actually alter our lives will happen at the periphery of the cloud. Technologies such as flexible and extensible displays, 4G and 5G wireless communications, wireless HD streaming, more computing capability on smartphones, better mobile operating systems and nano- and micro-scale sensors.”
Cloud computing disciples believe the inescapability Burrus speaks of and the complementary technologies Wadia speaks of will only increase, exponentially, in the coming years. They believe the trends we’re already seeing – wherein we’re all becoming accustomed to a connected world and are being catered to accordingly – will explode as those connections and the associated connectivity devices become easier to acquire and easier to use. And they believe services such as Google Apps are just the beginnings of a full-on revolution in the way we compute.
Software as a Service
Google Apps – an online suite of communication, Web, and standard office applications that has thus far proven extremely popular – is as important as it is because it breaks free from the traditional notion of “on-premise” applications. It is, in effect, “software as a service,” a concept that offers many advantages.
For starters, users access it only when they want it, and therefore have no need to install an app on their own computers. Nor must they store the files they create. Instead, the entire thing – both app and user-created files – exists online, in the cloud. And that lessens the need for massive hard or flash drives and high-end processing power, which in turn lessens the need for monster PCs and bulky laptops, which in turn lessens the need for us to remain in a fixed location to do our computing.
Granted, many of us enjoy a big rig PC for our endeavors (gaming, anyone?), and certainly our experts believe desktops will be with us for some time yet. However, if cloud-ensconced apps catch on in a serious fashion and potentially free us from the necessity of PCs and laptops and fixed locations – and most cloud proponents believe they will – what will tomorrow’s cloud-based devices look like?
On the personal hardware front, Burrus points to Moore’s Law, a shockingly accurate prophecy of computing power and miniaturization delivered by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore way back in 1965 that simply states, “The number of transistors on a chip will double every twenty-four months.” Burrus, fresh off a meeting with Intel executives, is convinced that “there’s no end in sight” to either the power or the miniaturization.
Future portable devices will be smaller, faster, quite possibly wearable, and conceivably embeddable. Some will likely project virtual displays and even keyboards, though voice recognition may well become the input tool of choice. “We’ve achieved 98.5-percent accuracy with software such as Dragon [NaturallySpeaking], and it won’t be long until we hit 99.9-percent accuracy,” says Burrus, a proponent of voice recognition technology and what it can do for our digital future.
Wadia gives us a glimpse into his own vision of personal hardware advancement. “By 2020, the laptop will have gone the way of the desktop. Computing capabilities on smart phones will exceed that of the laptop I am currently using. The biggest inhibitor to smart phones being laptop replacements will also be overcome with the advent of flexible, fold-able displays. People will invest in larger, more flexible screens versus a faster processor or a slightly more efficient GPS chipset. One can also expect some of the first affordable compact augmented reality displays to enter the market.”
And what will they look like? “In the future, it is conceivable that the smart phone is no longer a single physical unit. The memory, storage, (and) communications components would be a very small unit one could hang off a key-chain holder. The screens would just be battery plus GPU for rendering and a Bluetooth 4.0 receiver would exchange data between the core and itself.”
Burrus emphasizes just how critical the need for cloud connectivity will be in our digital and computing devices. “From the minute you buy [a digital device], it’s connected. It will be instant on. This will happen well before 2020.” Adds Canton, “In the future, power will come from speed, depth, and intelligence. The new power will be the depth of your connections.”
Business as Unusual
Don’t think for a minute that any of this is lost on the corporate world. In the words of Burrus, “There’s a million people (globally) not currently in the middle class who will be in a decade.” One would think marketing departments around the world are salivating over reaching them in an even more effective manner than today’s Internet will allow. Do a search for “cloud computing,” and you’ll find more references to big business’ involvement with it and adaptation to it than virtually anything else.
Indeed, business is in many ways leading the charge to ensure the cloud will be all that it can purportedly be. In a June 2009 survey conducted by Microsoft, fully one-third of 1,200 organizations polled said they planned to convert their application environments away from traditional client-server models during the next two years to one based on virtualization and cloud computing.
And certainly, the big tech firms such as IBM, Google, and a host of others are pouring untold gobs of money into massive server farms in which, if all goes according to plan, so much of our information will soon be stored. The latest example? A 500,000 square foot monster of a building located on a massive 180-plus acre parcel of land in the wilds of North Carolina. It is here, experts speculate, that Apple will house much of the data for its future cloud computing services.
“By 2020, cloud computing will become the default platform for providing big data services to the consumer and the enterprise,” Wadia says. “One could also anticipate separate ‘climates’ sprouting up to cater specific needs. High performance computing clouds like the Ekta supercomputer from Tata Communications in India. Government computing clouds like the Nebula project from NASA Ames. DNA Sequencing and Synthesis clouds could also be feasible beyond 2015.”