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Feature - Clouds in Geneva: the telecom view

Image courtesy Catherine Gater
Recently, Geneva played host to the impressive ITU Telecom World 2009, an event held only every few years and of significant importance to the telecommunications and ICT sectors. Attracting its fair share of world leaders, it has created quite a media splash – this is the first event I’ve attended that featured a special lounge marked ‘Heads of State’ (and no, they wouldn’t let me in).

The CERN booth was a lot busier than some of the larger, slightly shinier contributions, whose extensive marbled floors had a tendency to look rather empty. The CERN booth on the other hand, was packed with visitors admiring the dashboard Google Earth and finding out more about the LHC and the Worldwide LHC Computing Grid.

Given the buzz around cloud computing at EGEE’09 a few weeks ago, I was interested to hear the telecom community’s take on the subject. A distinguished panel of experts from IBM, Cisco, Oracle, Hitachi, email security firms and small- to medium- enterprises (SMEs) gave an extremely packed room their definitions of ‘What is Cloud Computing?’ And they considered the question posed by Viviane Reding of the European Commissioner for Information Society and Media: “Can cloud computing bring us out of the credit crunch?”

Image courtesy Catherine Gater  

So, according to business leaders, what is cloud computing?

‘A way of getting computer needs on demand — a bit like getting water piped to your home, but paying by the drink, not the bottleful’ was one summary. For Mike Hill, of IBM, it was more a question of ‘cloud economics,’ which have several key characteristics: pay-as-you-go consumption, lower costs through virtualization, customer self-service and automated service management software to reduce labor costs.

The panel also discussed some of the barriers to adoption. The general opinion was that psychology was at the root of reluctance to push data and processes out into the cloud. Customers want the new service to be more reliable and more secure than what they already have, probably an unreasonable expectation. Generally, the panel agreed that SMEs and consumers would be the ‘first to fall.’ After all, who doesn’t have a webmail account? Larger companies have more invested in their current infrastructures and may need more reassurance to make use of cloud resources for sensitive data. However, as Jay Chaudhry of Zscaler pointed out, there’s no need to ‘boil the ocean;’ even big companies can put a toe in the water with email or customer relations management tools, before casting a whole data center into the drink.

And is cloud computing the Holy Grail to solve the credit crunch? Figures for the potential size of the market varied — some said around 50 billion dollars, some up to 800 billion by 2013. A note of caution when bandying around these numbers: The full costs of your current solution shouldn’t be underestimated; don’t forget to include all the labor and training costs as well as the hardware bill you’re saving. However, with software development growing at only 3% per year, and cloud at 30%, there’s clearly something in it — as Duncan Stewart of Deloitte Canada put it: “At the moment, cloud computing is somewhere between ‘hype’ and ‘hyper.’ ”

Catherine Gater, EGEE. A version of this story also appeared on GridTalk’s GridCast

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