Computing is just starting to undergo its next revolution. This time it is called ‘cloud computing’, and is where software applications, processing power and data storage are accessed over the Internet. In the last few decades, computing may have become a mainstream part of our working and domestic lives. However, even with the massive uptake of the Internet, almost all computing resources have remained local. What this means is that computer applications, processing power and data storage have been located close or fairly close to their user.
As cloud computing takes hold, most computing resources will be hosted on the Internet rather than located in individual businesses, homes or pockets. Like most futurists, I do not often make definitive, date-specific predictions. Nevertheless, I would place a pretty strong bet that, by 2020, significant local computing resources will be very rare indeed. The future of computing is very much in the cloud.
Traditional and cloud computing
So why, you may ask, would any individual or organization want to switch to cloud computing? Well, one of the reasons is that cloud computing is device independent. Many people are now starting to use a wide range of computing devices, including desktop and laptop PCs, tablets, smartphones and Internet TVs. By embracing the cloud, users of multiple devices can gain the freedom to access all of their applications and data regardless of which computer they happen to be using.
As well as allowing people to always keep individual and company data at hand, cloud computing additionally facilitates collaboration. Documents, spreadsheets and all manner of data created and stored in the cloud can easily be accessed and edited by multiple users simultaneously. As cloud computing takes hold, the days of e-mailing attachments back and forth and collating changes from multiple authors will therefore become a thing of the past.
Cloud computing is also leveling the playing field by enabling all computer users to access all types of application almost regardless of their budget. This is because some cloud computing applications are free, with the remainder provided on a subscription basis.
Under the traditional computing model, only large companies could afford to purchase the most sophisticated software due to its high initial purchase price. In contrast, users of cloud computing services pay only for the software applications, storage and processing power that they actually use on a pay-as-you-go basis.
SaaS, PaaS and IaaS
All manner of cloud computing services are becoming available, with the market still very much in a state of flux. This said, most cloud services fall into three fairly distinct categories.
The first and most straightforward cloud computing category is ‘software as a service’ (SaaS). This is effectively a ‘take it or leave it’ form of cloud computing where users run existing, off-the-shelf online applications. SaaS applications include the Office Web Apps and Google Docs online office suites. However, a wide range of creative SaaS applications are also already available.
Platform as a service (PaaS) provides its users with online software development tools and hosting facilities. Companies can therefore use PaaS to build their own, bespoke business systems. Alternatively, anybody with a good idea can use PaaS to develop their own new SaaS application and deliver it to the world.
Several companies already provide PaaS offerings. These include Google (who have a PaaS product called App Engine), Microsoft (who have a PaaS product called Azure), and Salesforce (with a PaaS product called Force.com). Just one pioneering adopter of PaaS is EasyJet, with the airline now running a large number of its business systems in Azure.
Infrastructure as a service (IaaS) is the last cloud computing category and is even less restrictive than PaaS. Whereas PaaS allows users to create their own, new cloud applications, IaaS allows companies to migrate all of their existing applications from their own data centre to a cloud vendor. IaaS is therefore a very significant cloud computing category.
At present, one of the largest IaaS vendors is Amazon. The online retailer offers an extensive suite of IaaS provision, with its headline IaaS product called ‘Elastic Compute Cloud’ (EC2). This allows anybody to purchase online processing capacity quite literally by the hour. EC2 customers set up Amazon Machine Images (AMIs) that contain their applications. These AMIs can then be deployed to 1 or 1,000 or indeed any number of online virtual servers within minutes.
In the future, a few companies – and in particular Microsoft, Google, Apple, IBM and Amazon – may be very likely to operate most cloud computing data centers. However, due to the development of online marketplaces, many small companies will nevertheless have at least as great a chance as they do today to develop niche products and get them to market. To a very large extent, the cloud will therefore reward those with technical and creative ability over those with financial might.
The Green Cloud
The second major factor already driving the uptake of cloud computing is the opportunity to use less energy. Cloud vendors rarely have large numbers of computers that are drawing electricity but waiting for something to process. In turn this means that the carbon footprint of a unit of cloud processing power is usually less than that of a traditional, in-company server.
The Next-Generation Cloud
As well as providing the lure and economic necessity of reduced costs and improved green credentials, cloud computing will increasingly become essential for companies that are seeking to innovate.
Already cloud services like Google Translate allow documents to be translated from one language to another in real-time. By about 2015, the real-time translation of spoken language will also be a core cloud computing service. People will therefore expect automatic language translation to be part of every software application, telephone system and online service they use. For most companies, the only way to provide this kind of service will be to use cloud-based software and to widely adopt cloud computing.
Online vision recognition is also going to be a very major cloud development. In fact, the first visual search systems – such as the Google Goggles smartphone app – are already starting to become available. Fairly soon, these will use cloud-based artificial intelligence to recognize and obtain information on most objects and people in view. Future augmented reality systems will then be able to overlay such information on our real-time view of the world.
Future developments in artificial intelligence and augmented reality will depend heavily on cloud computing. Companies that want to be part of the next generation business landscape will therefore have to adopt cloud computing services in the same way that most businesses in the 1990s raced to put up a website.