Computing Among the Clouds

Computing Among the Clouds

By Jay Mayfield

What if your computer weren’t really a computer? What if the “hard drive” where you store the vital pieces of your life—like work applications, e-mail, and financial and medical information—wasn’t located in a single piece of equipment, but was available everywhere, all the time, as part of a computing “cloud”?

That cloud is not just the stuff of imagination. It’s the recently realized brainchild of Mark Dean (Knoxville ’79), an IBM fellow and the vice-president who oversees the company’s Almaden Research Facility in Silicon Valley.

“This is a fascinating time,” Dean says. “We’re realizing more of the potential in a distributed infrastructure for computing that can be leveraged around the world.”

Cloud computing, in essence, uses data centers—massive collections of computer servers around the world—as a “cloud” of collective resources that people and companies can put to use.

Right now, the applications and data you use every day are probably stored in one of two places, either on the computer you’re using at the time, or on a server somewhere in or near your office. And because that server has to be constantly available, it has to be big and redundant. Those qualities are important, but they also lead to a waste of computer power, energy, and resources when the backup (the built-in redundancy) and the extra space never—or rarely ever—are put to use.

That’s where the cloud comes in. Instead of using just one large server, the cloud is composed of vast banks of servers located all over the world. A company can store its data on that cloud of interconnected computers, using only the space it needs. In fact, the data may not all be stored on the same machine or even on several machines in the same location; the beauty of the cloud is that it doesn’t have to be. The tightly linked nature of the cloud means that to its users, it looks and feels as if they are working with information stored right down the hall, no matter where they happen to be.

More than just data storage, the cloud acts as a remote home to the programs a person or a company needs, allowing users to access everything they would ordinarily have in their homes or offices, from any device that can connect to the network.
“This will be millions of machines, managed and coordinated, for business, personal, and service applications,” says Dean.

The new “business as usual”

How will cloud computing influence the business world? According to Dean, it has the potential not just to level the playing field but to erase all its boundaries.

Take the hypothetical example of a small business that provides financial software for large companies. When this business adds a new client, it has to buy hardware, find space to store it, and pay for energy to power it. For the small company to grow, it must have ample resources and be able to adapt quickly to growth.

On the other hand, if that same small company opts to use cloud computing, the picture changes markedly. Using the cloud, the company has virtually unlimited resources in which to expand. It isn’t bound by how large its facility is or how much information can be stored on a particular piece of hardware. When a new client signs on or a current client needs a fast expansion, the small software provider can scale up quickly and seamlessly.

The move toward clouds signals a fundamental shift in how we handle information. It’s been described as the computing equivalent of the evolution in electricity a century ago when farms and businesses shut down their own generators and instead bought power from more efficient public utilities and accessed it from a network of power lines.

“To the outside world, as a small-business owner, I can look like an IBM,” Dean says. “As they see me on the web and as they see the level of support I can provide, I can give it as needed, and I can grow my brand without the hurdles that exist today.”

Globalizing the power of information

Clearly, storage of and access to enormous amounts of information from any location, at any time, is one of cloud computing’s major assets. And the advent of the smart phone opens new doors to put that asset to use.

“We’re now in the position of being able to think of the cellphone as more than voice, more than text,” Dean says. “We now have the ability to deliver web applications and services directly to the phone. It will essentially be your wallet.”

For the average person, that can mean using your mobile device not only to communicate by voice but also to access your entire medical history in an emergency at the push of a button. And as opposed to storing information on a chip you can carry with you, this information can’t be lost, because it’s stored on the cloud.

The impact reaches far beyond consumers in the U.S. into the developing world, where mobile phones play a vital role in communication. Cloud computing allows any kind of application or database to exist wherever the cloud can be accessed, making it possible to build an infrastructure in places where it might not be feasible to locate computers or build networks on site.

In the end, Dean says his work on cloud computing—an idea developed by his IBM lab in partnership with Google—is focused on using computers to simplify interactions between people and information. While it’s in its early stages, cloud computing offers seemingly unlimited possibilities.

After a career in computing that has seen the evolution of the personal computer and the creation of the Internet, that’s something Dean is comfortable with. As he puts it, “I’ve never been one to think there were too many limits on anything.”