Fine Print - December 2008

Hey, you, get onto my cloud
By G.D. Gearino

I’m not a trendsetter, a declaration that will come as no surprise to anyone who has seen the way I dress or noticed which music stations are programmed into my car radio. But I’m way ahead of the other kids on my block when it comes to cloud computing — a concept that deserves your attention. Geeks know all about it, of course, but for most folks it’s still over the horizon.

Here’s how I embraced the future: A few weeks ago, I settled on a new tactic for backup storage of large files, which in my case were the first 10 chapters of my next novel. It’s every writer’s nightmare to lose a work in progress, and I’m obsessive in this regard, keeping a printed copy of each chapter and also saving it to a CD. But recently I’ve gotten lazy, printing each chapter but not backing it up electronically. In a moment of fretfulness, I realized there was an easy way to store my files in a remote location — by e-mailing each chapter to myself as an attachment. A copy of my book now rests with Google. I can access it from anywhere in the world simply by logging onto my Gmail account. That’s cloud computing: data storage and networking via servers (in my case, the Google server farm in Lenoir) on the Internet — which is depicted as a cloud in computer-network diagrams.

What you’ll see in coming years is a tectonic shift as profound as the first computer revolution, which was when computing moved from mainframes onto the desks of ordinary people. This shift — call it Computing 2.0 — will represent a flashback to the old days: It’ll take your computing power, or at least the most vital parts of it, off your desk or lap and return it to huge, remote devices. You won’t buy software anymore, because it’ll be a service in- stead of a product. You won’t worry about virus protection. You’ll never download fixes or patches. External hard drives and other backup devices will go the way of the dial-up modem. Your boss will send you a document to review, and you’ll do so from your cell phone at the golf course while pre- tending to be at your desk. You won’t keep information exclusively on your computer because, like money in a jar buried in your yard, it’ll do you no good there. In fact, that’s how to look at it: Who keeps all his money at home nowadays? After all, it’s networked, too, parked in a financial cloud and accessible to you anywhere anytime.

That shift to übernetworking will affect virtually every technology company. That’s not my prediction alone. It also comes from John Chambers, CEO of Cisco Systems Inc., the California tech company that has what is essentially an East Coast headquarters in Research Triangle Park. In a recent interview with Harvard Business Review, he says “the biggest market transition” in the tech industry is the move toward a “networkcentric world [that] encompasses the whole range of communications experiences and seamlessly delivers information. Consumers will access voice, the Web, e-mail and video by any of the 14 billion devices that we think will be connected to the Internet by 2010, all loaded onto the network.”

Once you understand that transition, and once you grasp its implications, lots of things that may have been confusing suddenly make sense. It’s why Google is happy to offer no-cost e-mail and document-sharing services, as well as provide individual users with an impressive amount of storage capacity. (Even after archiving hundreds of e-mail messages, many with photographs, and storing half a novel in my account, I have used barely 1% of my allotted space.) Google wants to make sure computer users stay within its cloud. And it’s why Microsoft made a determined run at Yahoo earlier this year, offering $47.5 billion for the search giant. Microsoft — realizing that its business of selling an operating system to individual computer owners will dwindle in the networkcentric world — needed a cloud of its own. The failure of that acquisition has left Microsoft scrambling to develop a Plan B. In the meantime, the company is rolling out a cloud-based Windows product called Azure to compete with Google’s desktop applications.

What will this transition mean for North Carolina’s tech industry? If I could tell you that with any precision, I’d be living off my investments and phoning in this column from St. Bart’s. But some things seem evident. Lenovo and Dell, which both have operations in the state, will have to redesign their computers, de-emphasizing storage and focusing more on networkability. Software companies will need to configure their products with the cloud, rather than the PC, in mind. The company that is first to figure out a solution to the cloud’s privacy and security problems will grow fat and rich very quickly. Best of all, I might finally be considered a trendsetter.

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