Private cloud is a big business opportunity

As several enterprises are weighing up their options to adopt cloud-based services, said to be the biggest technology trend of the next decade, speculations are rife as to what it can do to the consumer space. If the world of information access has been transformed by the emergence of internet in the late 1990s, the advent of web 2.0 (which facilititates the power of interactivity of the web among the users), with search, wiki, blogs and social networking in the first decade of this century has drawn users in their thousands to the Worldwide Web (www).

It is not hard then for us to understand why the internet has become the world’s biggest market space, the ideal platform for financial services and, of course, the greatest source for information and entertainment. So… What next?

For now, consumers are able to keep thousands of emails, photos and videos on platforms like Gmail, Picasa and Flicker, but with much faster mobile connectivity technologies like WiMAX and 3G promising better connectivity, more things on their hard disk would go online.

“Cloud computing is not internet, it is the point where an increasingly efficient internet would meet the need to keep IT cost-effective,” explained Unisys CTO Bob Sapnic, speculating on the impact of cloud on individual users.

“Adding more storage or managing them in their computers is getting increasingly difficult for many. As anytime-anywhere access is becoming real, we would see cloud making a difference.”

A simple concept

‘Cloud Computing’ is a somewhat nebulous word to describe users ‘renting’ or ‘borrowing’ online software instead of actually purchasing and installing it on their own computers. It is the same business model as people using Gmail or Yahoo mail services, except that cloud computing goes much further. Cloud computing is where entire businesses and thousands of employees will run their computer tools as online rented products. All of the processing work and file saving will be done ‘in the cloud’ of the Internet, and the users will plug into that cloud every day to do their computer work.

Google’s email is a simple example of cloud comuting for general users. All Gmail account holders, for example, has almost unlimited storage capacity on their emails. One can attach almost any documents, music, picture or video files to his or her mailbox and reuse & store them on the Google’s server as many times and for as long as one wants.

Google even has free Google Docs applications that can open almost all application files and store them in its own format. One can rework and save such documents on the cloud.

Experts believe cloud’s emergence would gradually edge out physical storage space on the local drives over the next few years, as internet service providers may see an attractive additional income in providing storage services for home PC owners.

“Clearly, we are facing up to a situation where consumers have to handle more data than before. Given that they are pictures, videos and -even things like our own resumes- we would prefer if service providers take responsibility for them with -say- an extra Rs 20 to our monthly bills,” said EMC Storage Software Group (SSG) Senior Director Deepak Visweswaraiah, speaking recently in a panel discussion on the future of cloud.

Deepak is one of many in the industry who believe that optimising storage and other layers of the data centre to take real advantage of the cloud has only now began. “Data de-duplication, for instance, could be an important component of that process. Companies like EMC are seeing this as an industry by itself, given the growing need for it.” Deepak said.

They also speak of a ‘trickle-down’ storage which would let data reach the cloud in smaller quantities as users get them and provide them access later. With automation and intelligent, such technologies would become easily deployable on the cloud, enabling a reliable data storage system which consumers can tap-in to as and when required.

The native Vs cloud debate  

If SaaS (software as a service), IaaS (infrastructure as a service) and PaaS (platform as a service) have become buzzwords for enterprise cloud computing, then the idea of cloud in the consumer space may probably be described as BaaP -or Browser-as-a-Platform, as the browser  becomes the single via media for various cloud-based services for the consumers. With efforts by Mozilla to create a mobile browser, promising to make services accessible across various mobile platform, cloud may offer the most important solution for service providers on the mobile space.

If Mozilla’s vision of blanketing all services with the browser would come true, mobile developers need not worry about making various versions of their software for different mobile platforms like Android, Windows, iPhone and S60. The over-enthusiastic proponents of web-based services believe this would sound the death knell for platforms such as iPhones and would eventually draw curtains on AppStores.

That may be too optimistic for the time being, but Mozilla’s Fennec mobile browser -already available for  multiple-input and multiple-output (MIMO) devices and will soon be offered on Android- is said to eclipse all the platform-based devices, just how Adobe Flash worked for computer users in accessing gaming and animation content irrespective of the system they use.

Computer to handheld devices

“It is a tempting vision,” declared an article in wired.ccom. “Currently, when deciding whether to buy a MAC or a PC, an Xbox 360 or a Playstation 3, or an iPhone or Android phone, you will have to consider which applications you will need to run on each one. If programmers head in the direction of the web,  then ideally you’ll be able to gain access to any application regardless of the computer or smartphone you own.”

Companies like Google, who share the “web vision” with Mozilla, are fiercely working towards the ‘cloud’ model of consumption, as it enabled netbooks with just web features to use its ‘Crome’ Operating System. If this vision were to come true, users can access whatever they prefer anytime-anywhere on a smaller device and can save them on their personal web space which would become their virtual hard drive.

“Many, many applications can be delivered through the browser and what that does for our costs is stunning,” Google Engineering Vice-President & Developer Evangelist Vic Gundotra was quoted in a Financial Times report. “We believe the web has won and over the next several years, the browser, for economic reasons almost, will become the platform that matters and certainly that’s where Google is investing.”

Though this vision is being fiercely contested by those preferring a native-web approach of iPhone and MAC and the engineering difficulties it poses, Google’s vision would likely to transform the concept of cloud in the consumer space in terms of cost and the size of device users may have to carry.

Bob Supnik quotes Nicolas Car’s recent book “The big switch”, in which he compares datacentres-to-cloud transformation with a similar transformation that happened a century ago. “Those days, if companies were to start production, they must first set up their power grid without which they can’t do their main work. But this changed slowly and power production was given away to electricity companies. Same way… Cloud is making IT consumable to all kinds of people -from larger enterprises to individual users,” he said.

Video -the killer app?

While on one hand cloud has gathered the necessary IT resources to run heavier applications, the right kind of devices are starting to hit the market to make video and video-based applications be run on them. Apple’s iPad -with 3G connectivity and the ability to play videos- leads a group of tablet PCs (a hybrid version of mobile phones and laptops) expected to flood the market this year with facility to play streaming High-Definition video, access movies on the internet and play online games.

“If a housewife is busy shuttling between her kitchen and the TV in the hall, she could affix a connected Touch Infotainment Device onto her kitchen cabinet, close to the cooking area, and not miss either cooking or her favourite TV show,” says a press release from LACS, a Bangalore-based start-up announcing their touch screen based device and services for the Indian consumers.

“If a regular bus commuter/passenger, wants to pass his/her time by watching a movie or some song videos, he/she can do so by using a Touch Media Devices to play stored media content (up to 32GB storage).”

The company provides five to six different applications using the device that surrounds video, text and internet access, all tempting on a tablet and mobile devices. Though it is harder to say if such services can be reliable, they are certainly attractive to consumers who are hungry for more sophistication and rich media content. If the device is right and if the cloud an send the downpour of video stream, why not?

The downsides of Cloud

The risk of cloud computing is that the users must place a high level of trust into the online software vendors that they will not disrupt the service. In a way, the software vendor holds its customers “hostage” because all of their documentation and productivity is now in the vendor’s hands. Security and protection of the file privacy becomes even more necessary, as the massive Internet is now part of the business network. Just imagine what will happen to millions of Gmail account holders all over the world if the service go down eben for a few hours.

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