August 1, 2008

the cloud's best-kept secret

grey purpose small.jpg

["Possible Cloud Portrait". Click here to enlarge/download/print etc.]

You hear a lot of talk about "The Cloud" nowadays.

The premise is simple. In the future, we won't have or even need all our data or software programs on our own computers, they'll be floating around somewhere on somebody else's servers, accessible via the internet. A vast, interconnected "nebula" of other people's data and servers, hence the word, "Cloud".

Big players in this game so far include some familiar names like Sun, Microsoft, Amazon, Google, etc etc.

The way I'm seeing the future commonly talked about, is all this data and programs spread all over the networks of all these companies, relatively proportional to their current market caps. Some folk have their stuff with Sun, some with Amazon, etc.

But nobody seems to be talking about Power Laws. Nobody's saying that one day a single company may possibly emerge to dominate The Cloud, the way Google came to dominate Search, the way Microsoft came to dominate Software.

Monopoly issues aside, could you imagine such a company? We wouldn't be talking about a multi-billion dollar business like today's Microsoft or Google. We're talking about something that could feasibly dwarf them. We're potentially talking about a multi-trillion dollar company. Possibly the largest company to have ever existed.

I imagine many of my friends who work for the aforementioned companies know all about this, and know how VAST the stakes are.

Windows vs Apple? Who cares? Kid's stuff. There's a much bigger game going on... And for some reason, its utter enormity seems to be a very well-kept secret, at least to non-combatants like myself.

[UPDATE:] My friend James Governor, who consults in this world, left the following comment below:

Totally agree Hugh. As I said on on my blog recently: "Customers always vote with their feet, and they tend vote for something somewhat proprietary - see Salesforce APEX and iPhone apps for example. Experience always comes before open. Even supposed open standards dorks these days are rushing headlong into the walled garden of gorgeousness we like to call Apple Computers."

The players you mention will continue with The Great Game, but there is room for a new entrant (The Hun In The Sun).

[Bonus Link:] James also has a nice post on the subject, "Whose Cloud Is It, Anyway?".

[UPDATE:] JP Rangaswami comments over on his blog, advocating Open Source as the antidote to Cloud Monopolies:

I have always had this sense that there is no longer any room for artificial monopolies, that the market will provide a self-correcting mechanism. But I have always been wrong on this. We can argue about why this is so, but not about the fact. Microsoft, Google and Apple are facts.

Open standards, open platforms and open source are ways to prevent this happening. Ways to guarantee that history won’t repeat itself. But this needs coherent communal action, something that is hard to achieve in emergent environments.

[PS: That "Power Laws" link is highly, highly, highly recommended reading. Just so you know.]

Posted by hugh macleod at August 1, 2008 7:25 AM | TrackBack

totally agree Hugh. As I said on on my blog recently: "customers always vote with their feet, and they tend vote for something somewhat proprietary - see Salesforce APEX and iPhone apps for example. Experience always comes before open. Even supposed open standards dorks these days are rushing headlong into the walled garden of gorgeousness we like to call Apple Computers."

the players you mention will continue with The Great Game, but there is room for a new entrant (The Hun In The Sun).

Posted by: James Governor at August 1, 2008 8:12 AM

and as the Amazon S3 cloud-crash showed recently, putting "all your eggs in one cloud" still ends up resulting in having a "single point of failure".


Posted by: Jeff Sonstein at August 1, 2008 8:13 AM

To me, this sounds somewhat like The Matrix. Maybe it will be the biggest challenge in the history of humanity OR maybe its decay. One thing I'm curious of: who's going to *willingly* let their best kept secrets float around in Microsoft Mesh or Google Grid etc.?

Posted by: Diana Georgescu at August 1, 2008 8:27 AM

I'm not as gung ho as others on this. There's room for multiple players. If anything, I'd be worried if there were not multiple players. As to scale? Hmmm...that's a very different question.

You are right that there are plenty of conversations going on behind the scenes on this. But at many levels.

Posted by: Dennis Howlett at August 1, 2008 8:31 AM

1. Total interoperability of the cloud might make it irrelevant which "brand" one went with.

2. Do you not trust your own insight that you have to quote comments upon it?

Posted by: anonyme at August 1, 2008 8:34 AM

1. "Total interoperability of the cloud". I'll believe it when I see it.

2. "Do you not trust... upon it?" Statements like that will only get you laughed at. ;-)

Posted by: hugh macleod at August 1, 2008 8:41 AM

What I keep in the cloud, is what I choose to share with the cloud or what the cloud is willing to share with me.

The cloud might think it knows me. But it doesn't. The cloud might think it owns me. But it doesn't. ... Unless I forget ... Unless I forget the cloud's big secret ...

The cloud wants to own me ... the all in all of me ... and ... all of my nutrition ... and it is very seductive in the process. You are totally right.

I'm also pondering over this ... how the cloud wants me to think that there are "big players" and "big voices" in the cloud ... and that these are the "big"

It feels like many of the social media network startups are running around collecting a basket of ticks that are busy feeding off of each other ... aka "the bigs"

But it's starting to sound like a great huge "me too" echo chamber ...

Hugh, I reread your paper on creativity this morning ... it's been about two years since I last looked at it ... I think ... it feels that way anyway ...

You know what ... I miss the intimate ... the idea of collecting friends and contacts because of oh ... mutual affection, admiration.

What good is a social network crammed full of people writhing about just to get attention? And so few are truly interesting. Why do people with this sort of "friend" collection think they have a network?

Anyway ... not my blog ... rethinking my methods of communications and all my channels ... so I had to say "me too" on your blog. Thanks for the loan.

Posted by: MarillaAnne at August 1, 2008 8:46 AM

Dennis, I agree there is room for multiple players in this space. But I would also say the same is just as true for Search, yet Google's market shares still continues to top 70+ percent...

To the Victor go The Spoils. Same as it ever was... ;-)

Posted by: hugh macleod at August 1, 2008 8:51 AM

>> who's going to *willingly* let their best kept secrets float around in Microsoft Mesh or Google Grid etc.?
I think people just wouldn't think about it. Proprietary systems will still exist(even if storing encrypted data in the cloud). Normal (non IT) people would have no problem trusting them I think. Millions of people have email accounts on GMail, Hotmail, etc, etc. and I bet there are many secrets on the web already, locked up in private folders, private galleries etc.

What would be scary with the Cloud is that you'd never know whether the governments are in a position to view and sift through all that.

Posted by: =8)-DX at August 1, 2008 8:53 AM

Actually, Hugh, I'm not sure I agree with regard to cloud computing. Unlike higher level web apps, which get their dominance from network effects in user contribution (and thus demonstrate power laws), utility computing (which is the end of the cloud that most people talk about when they say "cloud computing") is really just that: a utility.

And if we get interoperability (e.g. with Eucalyptus creating an open source API-compatible EC2 clone that could be installed by any hosting provider), we should get some competition.

I'm not saying that there won't be some big players, but I don't think you'll get to one, unless someone starts building applications that, as I say in my "web 2.0" definition, get better the more people use them. For example, if I put my app in the cloud, does it get better because other people are using the same app?

Do cloud *platforms* have this characteristic today? Maybe does a bit, but I don't think Amazon has exploited this idea with AWS, nor Google with AppEngine. Paul Maritz over at EMC understands this, but they aren't a player yet.

That being said, I do think that there are reasons for concern, which is why I have long been urging open source developers to target the cloud. See my post Open Source and Cloud Computing. The possibilities for lock-in are huge.

Posted by: Tim O'Reilly at August 1, 2008 9:18 AM

Good points, Tim. Though who could've predicted Google's rise, even 5 years ago? Maybe something randomly massive will happen in The Cloud, maybe it won't. It all depends on "Random Acts of Traction" etc.

We live in interesting times...

Posted by: hugh macleod at August 1, 2008 9:48 AM

I think this is a pretty good vision for things to come. As far as "putting all your eggs in one cloud"...I think we'll approach that the same way humans approach head first into it until a catastrophe occurs, then scramble to do what we should have been done in the first place. We love putting all our eggs in one basket, then turning a blind eye on the risk. It's all fun and games until somebody gets hurt :)

Posted by: Mike Gowen at August 1, 2008 9:57 AM

All the more reason for seeking to control and maintain our own data in our own personal section of the cloud.

Posted by: John Dodds at August 1, 2008 1:44 PM

Science fiction author Fredric Brown wrote a very, very short story (1954 I think) entitled "Answer" that replies to 'monster computing machines' and offers a fairly bright idea of what we might expect from the cloud some future day. :-)

Posted by: Brian Hayes at August 1, 2008 2:23 PM

Hugh, it amazes me how many people scream and whine about the government (US) stealing their privacy but remain peepless when it comes to Big Brother-like companies a la Google and Experian.

Read the Power Laws post at your urgent request. Rants-o-plenty about website influence, not against authors or publishers, but against those who take their words as gospel.

Particularly peevish are so-called research studies done to do nothing more than increase ad sales in a particular magazine. Tracked one down and found the entire study was based on the answers of 165 women!

It is scary, Hugh. No wonder they call it The Cloud. Surely there are ways to fix it. when do we start?

Richmond, VA

Posted by: bonnie at August 1, 2008 5:40 PM

A hard rain`s gonna fall.

and flush us all

down the pan.

Posted by: Jake Edwards at August 1, 2008 6:45 PM

Hey all,

VERY interesting discussion, a bit paranoid though :) Let's try and leave the 1984 scenario for a while and follow me down Utopia lane, just for a while. I'm from Denmark så bare with my English skills.

I believe that "The Cloud" (uuuhhhh) will not be a an online cloud, it's not all that online, cross referred data sitting their for someone to eat. Not exclusively anyway.

Imagine that a company (Let's call it WFU Inc.) came along, a company made of people who's favorite movie was "Pay it Forward", the people behind it wanted to make a difference, wanted to make life easier for as many people as possible, they did not set out to be rich on money but rather enjoyed their contribution to this world. The started a lot of services which human beings benefitted from, they listened to their tribe when they complained and asked for better services. They knew that if they listened to the human beings making up their users, they would be extremely succesfull. Because their users were not used to that kind of "service" and talked, talked and talked to their friends and families about it and soon everyone wanted to a part of this company (lifestyle). In this process the bigger corporations broke down because they couldn't compete with a company made up from users loving each other, helping each other, setting the other users before the money.

As the huge, and well mentioned above, corporations were bleeding like crazy WFU Inc picked up the pieces creating all kinds of new services, never imagined to be part of "The Cloud" - They went 360 and took offline with their attittudes. They launched phone/internet companies, supermarkets, car dealers, cafés, transportation companies, search engines, real estate agencies etc. etc. Basically they moved in to every business where human beings (consumers) were treated poorly and like cattle with a Visa. And once they arrived they put the user first and THEN the money. (let's keep in mind that the management of WFU were very competent business people so of course they made money, it was just not their number one goal)

After twenty years the had 30.000 employees on the salary list globally and 300.000 (and rising) volunteers trying to make new products all benefitting the human race as whole, but still thinking like a corporation. They had to live and therefore would make money in the process.

At one point they had 80 % of the worlds population as clients and somebody said: "OH MY GOD, they own me, they know everything, they own my flat, my internetline, the supermarket on the corner, my creditcard, everything", and there were a small panic for a while and the consumers, human beings and users called and mailed WFU and aired their concerns. As WFU had always listend and taking their tribes nocerns and wishes seriously they did waht they should do, they became even more transparent, asked everyone in their to go to the and fill out a form where the tribe, off course, could leave all the services they wished (this was actually not new but people were used to slave like contracts from other services), they could see all information had about them (even when they "Google'd" last, they could delete what scared them, they coudl see every little employee of WFU and what they had been doing and what they earned etc, etc.

The tribe finally figured out that this company actually was a way of life, a way of thinking and the tribe felt safe again. Felt like they were part of a huge village where everyone tried to help each other as much, or little, as they could. The WFU management and founders, became very rich. Not only financially but also in their heart and mind. They now had a legacy.

Ok, I'll stop now as I'm SURE you get my point. The cloud, will it ever arrive, is more a childs drawing; a cloud in the sky, a sun, a house, a car, a tree, a mom, a dad, children and life. "The Cloud" can't be online only - it has to evolve into every aspect of life but it HAVE to stay vigilant and ethical as the consumers will always have feet to vote with. No matter hpw nice you have to be, you need to be nicer the next day.

My question is this: Do you believe this is possible? What should we need to do this? And what's stopping you? You are the difference as I am, as we are.

(fictional) WFU (not fictional) Love :)

Joackim Penti

Posted by: Joackim Penti at August 2, 2008 12:17 AM

Hugh, Another amazing post and I'm grateful as well for your push to read the Shirky article. Seems like most comments here are missing the point. It's not so much about megapower at the top as it's about the the increasingly vast ocean of middle ground. That's where most of us are, and as that ocean swells our hope of excelling, being noticed, becoming remarkable diminishes. The Stars we envy and love, but the Long Tail is our reality. Maybe it is no longer possible to get more than your fair share of the pie. Such a suspicion gnaws at the roots of capitalism, and is a fearsome thing.

Posted by: Mary H. Ruth at August 2, 2008 8:49 PM

All good - love the image.. it makes an awesome desktop image, thanks

Posted by: DunCAN at August 3, 2008 6:38 PM

this whole conversation strikes me as awfully pretentious....

Posted by: schuyler at August 3, 2008 10:16 PM

Great post Hugh - you're brought some of my favourite commentators out with this one....though I still prefer the cloud card you drew that is now my business card :)

I agree with Dennis and Tim - there is room and likely to be more than one player and whilst I take your point that the same is true for search they're different businesses.

The success of Microsoft and Google over the years required relatively small capital investment as initially it was just sofwtare. 1's and 0's don't cost a great deal compared to building a utility of the scale we're talking of here - to provide a utility cloud that could be used by anyone and everyone. That will require big up front capital investments that I think only a few have the desire and ability to make. Ironically, they'll probably be software companies and probably not too far from home :)

You're right though, there is a very big game going on and I suspect a trend line of articles published on "cloud computing" will show a huge increase over the last 6 months. identifying the winners is going to require a loooooong time yet.

Posted by: steve clayton at August 4, 2008 1:35 AM

The funny wars begin. Dell files a patent on "cloud computing". See below:

Posted by: JP at August 4, 2008 4:39 AM

Enjoyed the Clay Shirky article, thanks.

Got to the end of the discussion on the inevitability of inequality (fine, I can appreciate that). But then was interested to see that Technorati were trying a way of addressing this inevitable inequality via "interesting newcomers". Guess what - the link is dead (and googles, or cuils, for "technorati interesting newcomers" are equally unpromising).

I suppose this proves a point - any attempt to identify "interesting newcomers" would itself sooner or later suffer from the same power law inequalities that Clay Shirky's article describes.

Regarding blogs it's back to Google Reader recommendations to help me find interesting new blogs worth reading, so not the end of the world.

But it does point to the power of the power law, and the difficulty with which you can challenge it - even with open source. Don't you think?

Posted by: Alan Buxton at August 4, 2008 4:45 AM

I agree with your sentimemts, in fact i wrore similar on my own blog after mulling this all over for a conference 2 weeks ago (saw an article on Clouds on Techmeme today which provided the spur to write up that event).

Not sure that JP is right though, I think this game will be a network law game - OS will just be a tool used.

My post here fwiw:

Posted by: alan p at August 4, 2008 8:04 AM

in related news, GigaOm asks "It's 2018: Who Owns the Cloud?"

Posted by: steve clayton at August 4, 2008 8:05 AM

@High - Power Laws and all that, yep I get that and also that computing history only gets slightly re-written each time BUT - Google is only dominant in consumer search, barely a player in enterpr4ise search (and I WILL defend that one vigorously having seen them tossed out in several projects etc).

The 'cloud' thing is SO huge that it's inconceivable to see a single player. It would make whomever larger than all oil companies put together and then some.

Plus - the broad opportunity hits so many different 'pieces' of the enterprise that I can't see any single player realistically having the computing power to make it their own turf.

BUT - I am prepared top be persuaded. In maybe 5-10 years' time.

Posted by: Dennis Howlett at August 4, 2008 9:44 AM

i would say clearly hugh is talking about trending toward one, a la the current search market, rather than saying there will just be one company offering anything related to cloud services. being a little bit- you know, whatchamacalit- rhetorical.

JP basically articulates my views perfectly.

I have only been in the business 13 years, but my first job was tracking the "dead" IBM mainframe business, which was being "killed" by "open" Unix platforms. Open is awesome, but its not a binary state. In IT the Great Packagers win by understanding open standards are there to be managed and playing The Great Game accordingly.

"Who can get my family onto the network, without needing my little brother to set the darned thing up..." - these days that's your winner.

In the enteprise: its been companies like Oracle (SQL), Cisco (TCP-IP routing), Microsoft (desktop OS, desktop applications), Dell (the PC, PC servers), BEA+IBM(J2EE), IBM (mainframe), Sun (Unix), Google (link economies) etc.

Posted by: james governor at August 4, 2008 10:12 AM

Dell Tries to Trademark ‘Cloud Computing`

Posted by: Stephen Edgar at August 4, 2008 11:18 AM

One thing that could put the brakes on cloud formation is that, whatever privacy promises clients may get, they are out of the loop if the data are subpoenaed. It's the cloud's lawyers, not yours, who decide whether to resist a court ordered disclosure of "your" data. For all the safety and comfort the cloud provides of reliable, brand-name data storage, the legal problem of the changed meaning of "ownership" seems insurmountable. And the cloud service provider doesn't even have to tell you that it has turned over your records in response to a warrant. We have some more thoughts in Business Week today, but for some reason the editor snipped that crucial one out.

Posted by: Harry Lewis at August 4, 2008 11:56 AM

Looks like the link to the BW piece didn't come through, here it is:

Posted by: Harry Lewis at August 4, 2008 2:24 PM

The Cloud's already here, or rather, the cloud bank is gathering, and we're all participating on multiple storm fronts that will collide a la Kevin Kelly's the one machine.

The Cloud concept is fascinating for computational biologists/sociobiologists/evolutionary biologists as well - or it should be.

Let's look at progressive evolutionary stages of 'machines' or things that replicate:

1. CHON (early C, H, Oxygen, Ni molecule chains that led to formation of eukaryotes and prokaryotes).
2. RNA (if you subscribe to the RNA World theory) - with bacteria as allies/enemies and viruses/pathogens as competitors/enemies - so they Soft spacesuits for RNA. But they program, in essence, us to learn - DNA is the code. We do. We're the next evolutionary stage, but not the epoch, the pinnacle of life on the planet.
3. Really trixsy part comes about when we program our own replacements to learn, develop semi-sentient decision-making adapt. To process external environmental inputs and make decisions based on a hierarchy of preprogrammed 'needs,' at which point some level of subjective choice enters into the race for individual survival. Sound familiar to anyone in computing? It should. So computers are the next stage. And the cloud is the primordial ooze we're creating that will enable them to measure, process, analyze, and engage in decision-making for self replication. When we have computational programs and apps 'spontaneously' developing solutions we'll really be in trouble. Maybe it's already happening, who knows.

Sounds like sci-fi right?

Sure does, and so what if it is? The Clouds building and our 'seeding' of the cloud with increasing bits of information and data (and the ability for programs and apps to monitor our responses and adjust interfaces accordingly without directives straight from programmers)is a lot like sci-fi.

I'm not capable of conveying these sorts of theories in an eloquent and hyper-convincing manner, as I'm at best a 'hobby' scientist. But it sure makes for a good mindstorm.

And even if this whole postulation is completely off base (a distinct and highly likely possibility) - it makes for some interesting cocktail hour tweets, no?

Posted by: Jen McCabe Gorman at August 4, 2008 3:46 PM

The Multi-Trillion Dollar Company is inevitable. Just look at the trends in company size over history.

Posted by: Pete Steege at August 5, 2008 11:20 AM

Just a hunch with open standards... It's not going to be a reality until quite a number of cloud competitor emerges.

Much as we'd like open source to stand out from the get go, i don't see it happening unless there's one big dragon to slay. Eventually there will be but just not before a real cloud innovation war begins among player.


Posted by: friarminor at August 6, 2008 1:15 AM