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Rain from The Cloud doesn’t fall in this desert

May 31, 2011

I am working on a piece about “The Cloud.” I have some initial feelings about this new phase in computing, but those feelings are merely gut reactions… I have not come to an informed decision. For any of you interested, I am applying the filter of Lawrence Lessig’s Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace (the first edition) to Nicholas Carr’s The Big Switch: From Edison to Google.  Neither of these books came out recently, but due to the period of time I spent avoiding all things internet that were not directly related to the paying of my bills and expenses, they are new to me 🙂 .

This piece is not about that.  This piece is about access to whatever it is that The Cloud does offer.  It is about the plumbing.

The Cloud and Utility Computing:

While the subject of this piece is not a discussion of the merits (perceived, actual, and mis-represented) of The Cloud, it will help, I think, to frame the discussion:

There is a great deal of hype, and bandying about of the term “Cloud Computing” in the media, and in technology circles.  The first three times I tried to explain “The Cloud” to someone who didn’t already know what it was, I tripped over terms and phrases that made it sound fairly indistinguishable from “The Internet”.  Essentially, the internet evolves, and part of that evolution are new technologies, or new ways to use old technologies; at first blush, they don’t seem much different.  Also, many times certain “category killers” utilize these new (r)evolutionary paradigms before they’ve been given a public face (think: Google, Salesforce.com, Amazon…).  Also, I think technologists like to know more than the rest of the population …  All of these things combine to make the “revolution” seem like “what we have now” {those not at the cutting edge actually missed the coup occurring ;-)}

I didn’t want to get into a long discussion about this new piece of the internet puzzle, but I think it is important to understand what we are talking about.  Companies who came to the internet early did so as a competitive edge; companies that came to the show late did so out of some measure of desperation.  The internet came to become a de facto requirement for doing any measure of business.  (Actually, the Nicholas Carr book points out that this is somewhere along the line of evolutions that have brought us to Utility Computing, or The Cloud.)

While everyone was racing to the internet, they found themselves building their own supporting infrastructures (application servers, database servers, corporate networks including massive client-server architectures.).  These corporate networks come with costs of their own (hardware expenses, software expenses {both application, and security software to keep the data and network safe}, and employees to keep the whole thing running.)  These costs are fairly identical across different companies, and different market segments.  They are bottom line “cost of doing business” expenses, and companies “grin and bear it” to keep from being marginalized in their real core business (whatever that may be.)

The Cloud promises to change that.  It takes this “wasteful” duplication of physical resources across the board, and focuses it into enormous data centers, places whose entire role  becomes the providing of information processing centrally.  Massive clusters of information processing and application space, it is said, will bring about an era of computing as a utility.  Everything can run in the cloud, store in the cloud, and exist in the cloud.  Thin clients (hardware that runs the smallest amount of software) will be able to harness this power.  On the surface it certainly does make sense.

Broadband: Herald  of utility computing:

Why didn’t we think of this before everybody went out and bought their own infrastructure?  The truth is, some people did.  What kept the cloud on the other side of the mountain is the fact that much of this architecture requires a pretty darn fast pipe to the internet.  Broadband (and other high speed internet) technology enables the downgrading of the local network from being an essential local road to being the front door to the house.  The processing power can be elsewhere, and the web browser can be the view.

Wonderful.

That is, if you happen to live in an area blessed with fast broadband access to the internet.  Perhaps not so great if you live somewhere with options barely faster than dial-up.  As the internet moves more and more into these clouds, dragging the rest of modern computing with it, the potential for inequality of access still rears its head as an ugly beast.  If the internet is a great meeting place of ideas and society, then lack of access to this world is a new kind of segregation.

Larger metropolitan areas offer the greatest speeds and number of access points.   Companies choose where they live, so to speak, based on the resources that exist to support their business.  Greater connectivity to the internet is a de facto requirement for staying in business these days.  Companies go where they can get competitive edge if possible; they certainly avoid places that put them at a competitive disadvantage.   In earlier days, companies would often spring up close to their customer base.  With these clouds floating overhead, the customers are potentially anywhere.   Another big resource that businesses like to be close to is the pool of potential employees.   In today’s world, these desired employees are tech savvy, and smart.  Tech savvy people do not like to crawl the internet at a snail’s pace (read: they do not want to live where access to the internet sucks.)

Smaller cities and municipalities are hit by recessions just like big cities are.  The difference is in the rebound.  Some rebound slowly.  Some don’t really rebound at all.  I can think of one example that strikes a chord: Rutherford County, North Carolina.

Prior to the burst of the housing bubble, Rutherford County hosted a great number of low-tech companies.  Textile mills, mainly.  Changes in economic factors of production (read: cheap oversees product) rendered these business insolvent, I assume.  They shut their doors.  And no, the cloud is not to blame.  Slow internet is not to blame either.  The local economy certainly suffered, not helped by the country-wide recession.

Rutherford County has a lot going for it.  It has a rich cultural heritage, and sits in the foothills of the Appalachians.  Beautiful surroundings.   I think it could draw a great number of people who would want to live there.  Only, there are no jobs.  Also, there is no decent broadband.  Techies won’t flock there, and neither will this technology age’s companies.  Rutherford County loses the bid.  There is, of course, the big Facebook thing.  A data center.  The county promises away taxes and resources in exchange for the draw that is really an illusion.  Maybe around 50 jobs, mostly janitorial (as in, people who keep the place clean, as well as techies that keep the servers up and running.)   This is a raw deal, actually; no progress there, just a good place to dump the trash.  There are other examples of this.  One thing, though:  It rarely turns out well for the town that hosts these data centers, long term.

In many cases, the small municipalities have seen the value that a good pipe to the internet, and all that it brings with it, would be for them.  The telecommunications giants are disinterested in building out fast internet to “the styx”.  The monopolies and duopolies that exist actively keep  market forces (read:competition) from exerting their pressure.  Many municipal governments have tried to rectify this inequality by subsidizing the build-out of broadband in their area.  This is in direct response to being ignored.  This is a market force that could make the Internet Service Providers wake up and take notice.  Also, nothing says that this competition to the “as is” monopoly of the ISPs should be isolated to the backwaters; and that is what, I suppose, causes things such as what Doc posted about around 2 weeks ago.  They don’t want to lose their control.  Of course, the fact that on the face this bill claims to be in support of competition, is just more of the same bait-and-switch lawmaking that exists everywhere.  Call it one thing so that it does not raise any flags; make it do something entirely different.

Rain in the desert:

Regardless of who actually does the building out, one thing is pretty clear to me:  people who live in these areas need access to the rivers of knowledge, culture and wealth that the internet (as it is now) and the internet (as it will be when the clouds have passed) offers.  Taking the internet, putting it on a grid, and centralizing access to the information is a potentially good thing.  Ensuring that access to this resource is available ubiquitously, is of paramount importance.  Currently, we sip the milkshake that is the internet through a tiny straw.   When the new age of the clouds is in full swing, we become the desert that sees no rain, especially if we cannot find ways to irrigate our way back to the internet.   Left as is, when the age of the clouds reigns, we sip the milkshake through a coffee-stirrer.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Sherwood permalink
    July 4, 2011 9:16 am

    Quality content, I must say i await up-dates by you.

  2. September 26, 2011 7:52 pm

    You make a fairly commonsense point. Of course, the problem with common sense is that it isn’t very common.

    I live in Australia, and we have a similar problem to you guys in the USA, in that our countries are so geographically large it does make building and maintaining a decent network a bit more challenging. Nonetheless, as you point out, if smaller population centres are to keep up there needs to be parity. And it won’t just be the smaller towns that wins – everyone wins in that scenario.

    I recently spent 4 weeks in the USA, and was impressed by your interstate road system. If a network was built across the whole country, it would be even more valuable in the long term. Immediately, it would at least create a bucketload of jobs.

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