Why "cloud" isn't just handy, it's Important.

by Kevin Baillie

Whenever I ask people to define "cloud," the typical examples that spring up are web-based services like Dropbox, Harvest, QuickBooks Online, iCloud and Gmail. All of those can make our lives easier day-to-day but, unless you work for one of those companies' sales teams, you'd be hard pressed to call 'em important in the grand scheme of things. 

Agreed. But I'm gonna go out on a limb and assert that cloud is, in fact, important. Actually, Important with a capital "I." As in: save-people's-jobs-and-families-and-maybe-even-their-lives Important. The cloud I'm talking about isn't the "cloud" you know today; it's much more fundamental...and much, much more awesome.

Over the past decade, the word "cloud" has been snazzed up to mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Kind of like an innocent little holiday that's been "Hallmarked" into a commercialized abomination. If you wipe off the goop that's been drizzled on the term "cloud" by countless marketing departments and branding experts, it's is actually something much more simple: infrastructure for hire. Companies like Google, Microsoft and Amazon sell off massive amounts of computing power, storage, and bandwidth on a metered basis, much in the same way that power companies peddle electricity by the kWh.

Hrm. Sounds boring. Well, it kind of is. Until people start using it.

You see, right now, it's just the big enterprises who have the expertise to directly "plug in" to the cloud. It's how Dropbox stores files for millions of people, or how Apple serves up music to you wherever you are, on-demand. It's a one-to-many model. Very soon, though, the little guys will be able to plug in too. Even the Average Joe will gain access to hundreds or thousands of computers on-demand, flipping the entire model around and democratizing access to nearly unthinkable computing power. And that, my friends, is where things get very, very interesting.

We're already seeing the beginning of that paradigm shift. Case in point is how Conductor gives individuals and smaller filmmaking teams access to computing power that, even 2 years ago, was reserved for only the biggest 2-3 visual effects companies in the world. It's allowing companies like Atomic Fiction to create visuals for movies that used to be way out of their league. It also lets them focus financial resources on retaining their most valuable asset - people - rather than carrying large amounts of on-premises infrastructure. Cooler visuals, better economic models, and people getting to keep their jobs is all pretty rad.

Virtual Reality will require huge amounts of pre-computing power to create the Holodeck-like experiences that everyone is so excited about (though haven't quite been able to achieve yet). I think that it's gonna be the newbies - the small, super intelligent teams who are shaking the establishment - that are going to get there first. They're going to create an entirely new way to experience life, education and human relationships because they're smarter and more imaginative, not because they have a giant server room. Thanks to the cloud, they won't ever need one.

Things start to get even more Important when we talk about scientific computing. Our fragile environment and depressingly mortal bodies are unimaginably complex. Testing on living organisms, and taking measurements over long periods of time, used to be the only way to roll. In the recent past, relatively simple simulations have been possible in the data centers of big drug companies and learning institutions. Cloud is changing that. It's starting to afford really smart, small groups of people the ability to do thousands of times more simulations in a fraction of the time, and do so affordably. That's a lot like what's happening in the movie industry but, in this case, it's actually curing disease and saving lives. I'm willing to bet that a lot of the calculations that will be used to cure cancer, stop aging, solve our climate crisis and allow us to colonize Mars will happen in the cloud.

"Cloud" means that we'll be living in a very different world less than a decade from now. The only use for a computer under your desk will be as a cool, retro foot stool. Entire companies will run exclusively in the cloud. Single individuals will have the power to able to do the amount of calculations in a single day that would've taken years or decades just a few years ago. Our hand-held devices will have thousands of times more power than just the processor inside of them, because they'll be offloading their compute cycles to the cloud. Not until quantum computers are sufficiently miniaturized will we see the pendulum swing back to a local computing model. I can't wait to write a blog post about that paradigm shift.*

So, is cloud Important? Yeah. I think it is.


*when people are like "what the hell is a 'blog' anyway?"