The Economist Discovers Cloud Computing

Once, The Economist starts writing about a technology topic, you know that it has hit the mainstream.  The print edition has a nice overview article on Cloud Computing this week, reproduced online here.  I’ve written just a bit on this topic in an earlier post, but to summarize the driving forces behind Cloud Computing as seen by the Economist:

  • Economies of scale: The large service providers can deliver computation and storage more cheaply by amortizing the cost over a large customer base. The expertise is already available in house to manage hardware installations, software upgrades, backup, fault tolerance, etc.
  • Convenience: users will be able to access their data and services from any device, anywhere.
  • Instant access to tremendous computation: new startups with the latest technology breakthroughs won’t have to invest in machine rooms filled with servers or hire the people to run them.  Instead, they can pay for the necessary computation and storage by the hour on, for instance, Amazon Web Services.

Of course, Cloud Computing comes with the usual list of dangers and pitfalls:

  • Lock in: one cloud computing provider may become dominant, crowding out all competitors perhaps through unfair business practices.  Even if there is a vibrant ecosystem, moving data from one cloud provider to another may not be easy.
  • Loss of privacy: large companies may maintain significant information about their users, for example, the entire search history of every user.
  • Lack of safety: there are numerous examples of cloud service providers losing customer data entirely.  Just recently, Danger, a subsidiary of Microsoft, lost the contacts, photos, etc. of a large number of users.

Perhaps my vision is obfuscated by all the hype, but I believe that the delivery of computing and storage as a utility for a significant class of applications is an inevitability.  The list of above challenges is of course incomplete.  For instance, see some very nice work from my colleagues on the privacy of computation in cloud environments.  But I see these challenges as opportunities for industry and researchers in academia to address some of the pressing problems facing larger-scale adoption of Cloud Computing.

Amin Vahdat is a Professor in Computer Science and Engineering at UC San Diego.

October 2009

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