What’s next in cloud computing?

10877157_xl With more organisations moving their operations to the cloud, eolas examines what’s next in cloud computing and speaks to NUI Galway’s Tom Acton, who helped develop Ireland’s first cloud computing research masters.

Business, consumers, government and society in general are living in the cloud. Industry experts describe this as ‘physical being replaced by digital’ i.e. books become e-books, CDs become MP3s and friends and business associates become ‘virtual’.

Personal clouds are developing, whereby consumers access content and services on any device without restriction. This is illustrated by the growth in global smartphone sales, which reached

472 million in 2011, compared to 297 million in 2010, according to Gartner. Offering countless apps and immediate access to the internet, social media, real-time maps and transport timetables, smartphones make cloud computing a day-to-day reality.

Meanwhile, in a bid to adapt to consumers’ changing needs or to modernise and save money on IT infrastructure, businesses are deciding how best to manage their cloud services. Most companies now have some form of cloud applications running in their business, from small file-sharing or data storage applications, to more complex customer relationship management systems or platforms for marketing campaigns and generating sales leads. The ultimate benefit for the business is that they can innovate without having to spend a lot of money.

Dr Tom Acton tells eolas that the cloud is “the internet used differently.” Businesses are primarily moving to the cloud to save money, he finds.

The 2011 Ernst and Young Global Information Security Survey showed that 61 per cent of global respondents (1,037) were using or planning to use cloud computing services in the next 12 months.

With eight cloud data centre operators in Ireland (Adobe, Amazon, EMC, Google, IBM, Microsoft, Vodafone and Yahoo) and Google and facebook’s EU headquarters based in Dublin, the Government is promoting Ireland as a ‘cloud capital’.

“We have the infrastructure, the technological expertise, the skill base, the track record and, above all, the adaptability, to deliver,” the Taoiseach said in March. He referred to cloud computing as “one of the most exciting areas of development in Ireland” and said he was convinced that, “at the rate we are going, Ireland can be the cloud computing capital of the world.”

Acton believes that Ireland can become a cloud computing capital. “We have the capacity, we have the ability, we have the people, we have the technologies and we are physically placed between Europe and America. All of those things are in place but we could miss the boat by a lack of pace.”

Government investment and more university courses like NUI Galway’s are necessary, he argues. “Right now, we are the only one offering a research programme on cloud. In a few years we will see the equivalent to what we are doing in every university in Europe,” he predicts.

NUI Galway’s research masters course on cloud computing focuses on “the business value of cloud and whether existing business models can exist in the cloud space.”

“Rather than companies having to invest in high-tech and high-spec machines and throwing them out the window every few years, [they] will be accessing high-speed cloud services, where the brain-work will happen.” As well as saving money, employees can access their desktop anywhere in the world. “Essentially, your existence moves into the cloud,” Acton contends.

When asked what’s the next phase for businesses which are using cloud services, Acton warns: “We are literally dipping our toes into the water on this one. In the next few years, I think we will start to go waist-high into it.”

What’s “crucial”, according to Acton, is that Ireland needs high-speed internet “to make it happen.” Currently 13.4 per cent of the share of fixed-line broadband in use in Ireland is equal to or above 10MBps, compared to the EU average of 38.9 per cent. Pat Rabbitte is expected to release a national broadband plan for Ireland soon, following the consultation on his department’s ‘Next Generation Broadband’ report. That paper estimated that 50 per cent of the population will have access to at least 70 MBps by 2015, but 15 to 30 per cent of households (mostly in rural areas) will still only have a basic broadband service.

There is a danger of “being dragged back in the same way as in the late 90s in terms of our broadband speeds.” Other countries are “racing ahead of us,” Acton states.

If the Government decides to move to the cloud, Acton suggests that it ensures “a concerted effort by government departments so that it’s not each department doing their own thing.” Instead, “they should come together and look at an umbrella layer of security across everything that’s done in terms of e-government.” This will be expensive, Acton says. In fact, “cloud computing isn’t going to be cheap until it becomes [the] de rigueur common-day way of computing.”

Once businesses use cloud services, they will try to innovate. According to Acton, they are considering where they will find competitive advantage and how they will do business better.

He explains: “We work with software development companies. They go to their client sites in Peru and Chile and can access their virtual machines in the cloud at the same lightning speed as they would if they were in Dublin.”

Five years from now, “anyone who is in that business will be doing it in the same way and it will become the common denominator.” For now, “the race to the cloud for businesses is to gain a temporary competitive advantage, but that’s all it’s going to be.”

Cloud security is a major factor in deciding whether or not to use cloud services. Acton points out that these concerns are valid. This generation has to get used to “the notion of moving your identity and work off your machine and into a space and server where you don’t know where it physically is [i.e.] allowing others to govern and manage your stuff.”

Security breaches, such as staff losing USB sticks, “will not go away with the cloud.” Therefore “it is incumbent on the storage providers to really ring-fence what they are doing.”

A change in mentality is needed in his generation, he claims. “If you’re 18, you’re quite free with putting your information in the public sphere such as facebook, but if you’re 38, you’re more reluctant to do that.” Similarly, he recalls the move from long-playing records, which allowed users to see what stage of the record they were at, to shiny CDs. “It’s that same jump: from knowing where your data is on your machine to it not being near you, and the obvious concerns that arise with that.” His four-year-old son slides his hand across the TV screen and is confused as to why it’s not working.

For his son’s generation, touch-screen devices and cloud services will be “second nature.” That’s why Ireland’s younger generation, who “just do this naturally” are “our real resource.”

In five-to-10 years, when “kids at school are doing work on their tablets and seeing it on their computer at home or the fridge is sending you a text that it is out of milk,” Ireland will be “world-dominating,” Acton believes.

He concludes: “The true power of the cloud will be when people don’t have a notion that they are using it. It will become completely transparent.”

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