While discussing SimpleDB ,Nick Carr points to the polar opposite views that the two computing behemoths, Google and Microsoft, hold as to the future direction of cloud computing. Google’s Schmidt sees an eventual 90/10 split with the cloud being the home to most data and processes while as expected, Microsoft’s Raikes points to the current reality and insists that the trend will continue to favour a PC centric view.
I’m not sure who’s right, but my instinct (or is that my prejudice) would be towards the Google view. But one thing I am sure of, is ,that as the the cloud (aka the Internet) and “personal computing devices” (aka desktops, laptops,PDAs, mobile phones) fight it out for dominance, the future of the business LAN as the prime computing backbone is looking increasingly untenable. For SMEs and consumers at least, the WAN (in the form of the Internet) is the new LAN.
Not that LANs will disappear totally, the necessity to provide local wireless access and the address limitations of IPV4, plus the need to share printers etc. will see to that (a least in the short-term, but mobile 3G networks, IPV6 and services such as PrinterAnywhere may eventually address these issues). Also, the ability to act a local cache for backups and data access will ensure the LAN’s continued existence at least until Korean levels of broadband speed/availability becomes the norm in the rest of the developed world.
But what about shared private data, email/calendar, backups, security and last but not least, business applications; the big five “business” reasons that lie behind the justification for must organisations’ (and some families’) LAN setups?
Shared Private Data
Fast ubiquitous broadband and online data stores such as S3, SimpleDB, Microsoft Live Workspace and eventually GDrive, will mean that for many small and medium companies the cost of maintaining in-house data servers will no longer make economic sense. Even large organisations, who have in many cases already out-sourced their data centres to the likes of IBM and are already operating VPNs over private and public WANs, may also move parts of their data infrastructure to the internet cloud. Added value online storage services such as provided by Google’s Docs and Spreadsheets will also drive individuals and organisations in this direction.
Email / Shared Calendars
One word Google Apps. Okay, that’s 2 words and a bit simplistic but GMail and Google Calendar and particularly the premium Google Apps versions represent the future shape of business communication systems. Add in Wiki-like collaborative tools such as Google Docs and Spreadsheets (and the long awaited Googlified JotSpot) suddenly the idea of any SME running its own Exchange servers becomes harder to justify.
Even in current setups, an effective backup policy requires that data be moved of-site, so online backup services are a natural progression. In essence the LAN is working as a local cache to quickly assemble the backup and prepare it for transportation to another location (the boss’s home study most likely!). Online backup will probably be the first cloud service that businesses adopt. But as transactional data increasingly gets recorded off-site most of an organisation’s data will already be “backed up”; so, future backup services will be of the intra-cloud, belt’n’braces type e.g. a service that makes encrypted copies of your data stored on one service and either stores them in another online location or maybe burns the data to DVD and deposits it in a physical secure store.
LANs are seen as the modern data equivalent of a medieval town with its firewall playing the role of the town fortifications. But just as increased mobility. collaboration and newer technology put an end to the justification and utility of walled towns, a similar fate awaits the firewalled LAN.
The explosion in the number of workers (especially knowledge workers, free agents and senior executives) operating outside the local network means that companies must already address data security in the context of public networks. VPNs can of course bring the LAN environment to the mobile worker (even a home/tiny business can use something like Hamachi VPN). But VPNs will not extend the LAN but replace it; increasingly to be used as “private pipes” between trusted peers and cloud servers.
For example, I use Hamachi to communicate with my EC2 instances and to transfer data between my laptop and my main desktop PC; something I can do securely and effortlessly from my laptop using any private or public network. As such, the firewall that really keeps my data secure is the one on my laptop not the one built into my LAN router.
You might look at the recent spate of data loses as evidence that companies should batten down the hatches and throw away the key but I’d argue that it’s a failure to face up to and manage the risks (and opportunities) of mobile data that has caused most if not all of these breaches. The first step is to focus on the “Wifi-enabled, easily-stolen laptop connected to a dodgy airport public network” as the “standard” against which your firm’s (and family’s) data security will be judged and eventually tested.
For many small businesses the business applications they use tend to be either single user packaged apps or even more likely, Excel. Having a shareable cloud-based data store is all they require to abandon their LAN. But for those businesses that rely on sophisticated multi-user systems replacing in-house servers will be more difficult. There are three options as I see it:
- Keep servers in-house but purchase or lease them as pre-configured “black boxes”. When a new version or bug fix is required, the vendor remotely updates the software; no on-site technical expertise required. Likewise, the vendor remotely monitors the hardware and slots in a new pre-configured box as required. You may argue that the LAN remains and yes it does, but this sort of setup would only be required where high-speed and reliable broadband is not yet available or where any interruption in server connection is not an option.
- Use remote pay-as-you-go, invoke-as-you-need virtual servers such as Amazon’s EC2 or Scotland’s Flexiscale. Again, using pre-configured virtual machines that can be either purchased or leased from software vendors removing the need to have in-house server or application expertise.
- And finally, the ideal for most companies, SaaS, Software as a Service, pioneered by Salesforce.com and now starting to gain traction across not just CRM, but accounting, and even full scale ERP. Even the mighty Sage is starting to feel the winds of change! Very small businesses are also well catered for, e.g. FreeAgentCentral for UK based freelancers.
Times they are a-changin’, migration of some or all data to the internet cloud is inevitable, large organisations will most likely build their own cloud, smaller businesses will need to adapt to the cloud-as-a-service model. Organisations need to start thinking about it now as all future IT investments need to factor this phenomenon in, even if the reaction is to reject it!