Some days ago, I linked to a nice poem about cloud computing. I think it expresses nicely the confusion that exists about this term. Usually, it comes into play when people talk or write about the fall of Windows. News sites and blogs were full of this kind of stuff when Google released their new web browser Chrome. I have been using this term frequently, without thinking much about its meaning. After I read this poem, I wasn’t sure, anymore, if I really knew what “cloud computing” actually means. Thus, I thought it would be a good idea to write down at least once, what kind of associations come to mind when I think about cloud computing. After I finished this post, I realized that it had become more like a defense for desktop computing.

Software as Commodity/Utility computing ^

The idea that software is just an unimportant commodity is very old. Before Microsoft entered the computing market, it was just like this. At that time, there were, basically, only hardware companies, and software was just some kind of unimportant add-on. Microsoft was able to grow fast because hardware vendors, in particular IBM, realized much too late that software is more than just a commodity. With the rise of Open Source software, these companies saw a chance to reverse the course of history.

Obviously, this expectation hasn’t come true yet, so many are hoping now that cloud computing could step in where Open Source failed. Nicolas Carr is probably the most prominent representative, although he goes even a step further in claiming that IT as a whole will be just an insignificant commodity. His main idea is that companies will buy IT services as they buy electricity nowadays. That is, you just have to plug-in your “IT device” into your “IT socket,” and you will pay the consumed IT along with your next electricity bill. According to his view, IT or software will be a relatively unimportant factor for any business just like electricity is nowadays. If you want to know my humble opinion about this theory, I think it is just plain nonsense! You could, as well, purport that money won’t be important in the future for businesses because it will come over the Internet. After all, online banking made accessing money as easy as consuming electricity.

Software as a Service ^

SaaS is connected to the commodity idea, although it does not consider software or IT to be an unimportant factor in the future. Even though the term “SaaS” is relatively new, it is a very old concept. In the mainframe's ice age, it was the most common way of computing. The question now is whether improved connectivity, respectively, the Internet, will cause everything that the PC has changed in the last 20 years or so to revert back. This is, certainly, an interesting question.

The crucial point is what role the rise of the Internet plays here. In former times, mainframes were connected as well, and companies accessed them over the net, although, they didn’t use TCP/IP then. So what exactly did the Internet change? I have been thinking about this one for a while, but I must admit, I don’t have an answer. PCs revolutionized IT simply because they were cheaper than mainframes, so maybe the Internet will change everything because connectivity is so cheap now? I don’t think so.

The cost for accessing mainframe services was never an issue. Thus, someone who predicts that cloud computing will prevail has to explain how SaaS or other forms of cloud computing are different to the cloud computing we had in the mainframe ice age. In addition, even though many people believe that SaaS and cloud computing mean basically the same, I think they are two distinct concepts. Of course, you can run software that comes as a service on desktops as well.

Web apps ^

If you ask people about the advantages of cloud computing, usually terms such as Web 2.0 or collaboration come up. There is no doubt that Web 2.0 is a success story, and that collaboration will gain more importance in the future. People who think that PC computing or Windows, in particular, is obsolete believe that Web apps will replace common desktop apps. For example, Google apps will replace Microsoft Office because they are cheaper, allow collaboration, and can be accessed from everywhere.

I never understood what those people meant by collaboration here because, in my view, Google apps don’t support it at all. Editing a document simultaneously has nothing to do with collaboration. When I think about collaboration, systems such as Sharepoint or Office Live come to mind. Collaboration means working together in a coordinated way and not working together, simultaneously. Obviously, this works perfectly with desktop apps, too.

Whether web apps will be cheaper than desktop apps has yet to be proven. I see no reason why developing a web app should cost less than developing a desktop app. Also, why should hardware for data centers be cheaper than for ordinary PCs? Payroll costs for desktop management are falling continuously because client management tools are becoming more and more sophisticated. Thus, I doubt that managing computers in the cloud will be significantly cheaper than managing desktop PCs. After all, these are all just computers which are connected over the Internet. Whether they are located in a third party data center or on computer desks around the world, it doesn’t really matter because the Internet makes the location of computational power an unimportant factor.

The “accessible from everywhere” argument is a good one, although, I think that its importance is often exaggerated. Most people just use one PC for their work. They simply don’t need to be able to access all their data from every place in the world. However, I admit that online accessibility of applications and data is an interesting feature. I just doubt that, in the long run, web browsers will play an important role here. Even though I was quite impressed by iCloud, I personally count on RIAs here because they allow the development of more sophisticated user interfaces.

Grid Computing/Distributed Computing ^

Cloud and grid computing are usually associated with each other. Everyone thinks about Google with its large data centers, where thousands of computers work together to perform a full text search on billions of web pages in a blink of an eye. If one thing is for sure, it’s that grid or more generally distributed computing will gain importance in the future.

Actually, I even believe that distributed computing might replace server virtualization in the long run. Server virtualization means that you run one and the same OS multiple times on a piece of hardware. Obviously, this is a waste of resources. With distributed computing, you have the same advantages as with virtualization, i.e., better scalability, but you utilize hardware resources more effectively because you don’t need the guest OS, anymore.

However, the interesting question is whether distributed computing will take place only in big data centers. Projects such as SETI have shown that, in many cases, it doesn’t really matter where the computational power is located. However, I think we will always need computational power where the end user is located, because future user interfaces will be more sophisticated. Sooner or later, we will have 3D user interfaces with virtual- and enhanced- reality. You can’t do that for a lower price in data centers. However, there will always be unused computational power on desktop PCs which can be utilized for other purposes. I wonder when the first company will come up with a workable idea to compete with Google by leveraging these unused resources on billions of desktops and laptops? Then, the whole Internet would be just a big cloud!

Server hosting ^

Another form of cloud computing is the server hosting. Since I just blogged about it recently, I won’t go into this today.

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Did I forget an important form of cloud computing? What is your view? Is cloud computing a threat for Windows?

5 Comments
  1. Jack Hughes 14 years ago

    I think cloud computing is a threat to Windows purely because open source software is a lot more convenient from a licencing perspective for cloud vendors. That said, if Microsoft want to go after the cloud vendors I am sure their customers would be happy because many already have MS skills. It would be nice to be able to take a ASP.NET based app and deploy it on a scalable architecture and just rent the storage, bandwidth and CPU/hours that are used.

  2. Derek Jones 14 years ago

    You completely miss the point. The idea isn’t that software isn’t an “unimportant add-on.” The idea is the software is the only point. Everything else is what becomes unimportant.

    The PC, the OS, maintenance, most TCO positions. Will it happen tomorrow? No. I don’t think anyone is really making that argument. However, it evolve into something that will replace Windows, and really all desktop computing. Without doubt. Why? Because people buy computers and software to do communicate, work and play and anything and everything that interferes with that basic proposition is subject to resistance. The strength, up to now and in the short-term future, of Windows was that it offered the best balance of capabilities verses costs (money and time).

    As netbooks/iPhones/whatever become more and more capable of legitimately taking on Word, Outlook and every other desktop application–again, not today–at lower costs, market forces will transition over and the importance of Windows–and every other “desktop OS”–will lessen. There will simply be too much benefit and lower costs not to make the transition.

    You’re right in the short term–all these FUD around cloud computing is real and there are problems to overcome. But, given time and development, Windows will eventually loose this war. Just as Windows replaced the myriad of inferior choices in the 80s, so to will the market evolve to require its replacement.

  3. Michael Pietroforte 14 years ago

    Jack, I agree that for cloud vendors Open Source is more attractive, not just because of licensing costs, but also because it gives them more flexibility. But it seems to me that Microsoft is aware of this fact. Maybe that is one of the reasons why they are setting up so many “cloud datacenters” at the moment.

    Derek, it is not my view that software will become an unimportant add-on. That is Nicolas Carr’s famous stance. The news sites were full of this stuff when he published his new book a few months ago. Thus, it seems that many takes him seriously.

    The reason why I am quite skeptical about theories predicting that Windows will disappear is because the list of this so-called Windows rivals is getting longer and longer: OS/2, Apple, Open Source/Linux, Thin Clients, Net Computers, Java, Netscape Navigator… I am sure I forgot a few of them. This “Microsoft has a serious problem” talk is as old as Microsoft. All these rival technologies had their hype phase, but Windows is still here. Perhaps, one day one of Microsoft’s competitors will understand that it doesn’t make sense to always re-invent IT. If you seriously want to compete with Microsoft, you need a fat and sophisticated desktop OS that runs on all kinds of hardware. It is as simple as that.

    As to mobile devices, they certainly have a great future. I have one myself and can’t imagine living without it anymore. But guess what OS is running on my smartphone? Yes, Windows. I just read that Windows Mobile outperformed the overall market.

  4. Rohn 14 years ago

    Good points. Maybe you can answer a question I’ve asked elsewhere.

    Given the points you made, on the average user desk we now have:
    – cheap terabyte,
    – cheap gigahz multi processor CPU’s typcially at 1% utilization
    – gigabyte networkds to connect the desktops

    has anyone discussed doing cloud computing inside the corporate firewalls. Make use of that massive under-utilized computing resource sitting on the average workers desktop.

    Years ago I programmed an application running on a Tandem system. Great stuff, parallel processing, auto failover of all resources, many networked CPU’s. Great stuff. The root of everything implied in cloud computing.

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