Is the cloud sustainable?

The value proposition of cloud computing is basically that backend or server-side computing is somehow better than front-end or client side. History suggests that the net benefit tends to swing like a pendulum between front and back. I don’t think cloud computing will last, for there is an inexorable trend towards the client. It seems people like to keep their computing close.

It’s often said that cloud computing is not unlike time-slice computing of the 1960s. Or the network computers of the 1980s. These are telling comparisons. So what was the attraction of backend computing in past eras?

In the 1960s, hardware was fiercely expensive and few could afford more than dumb terminals. Moore’s Law fixed that problem.

In the 1980s, it was software that was expensive. The basic value proposition of the classic Sun NetPC was that desktop apps from you-know-who were too costly. But software prices have dropped, and the Free and Open Source movements in a sense outcompeted the network computer.

In the current cycle I think the differences between front and back are more complex (as is the business environment) and there are a number of different reasons to shift once more to the backend. For consumers until recently, it had to do with the cost of storage; filesharing for photos and the like made sense while terabytes were unaffordable but already that has changed.

A good deal of cloud ‘migration’ is happening by stealth, with great new IT services having their origins in the cloud. I’m thinking of course of Facebook and its ilk. A generation seems to be growing up having never experienced fat client e-mail or building their own website; they aren’t moving anything to the cloud; they have been born up there and have never experienced anything else. A fascinating dynamic is how Facebook is now trying to attract businesses.

For corporates, much of the benefit of cloud computing relates to compliance. In particular, security, PCI-DSS and data breach disclosure obligations are proving prohibitive for smaller organisations, and outsourcing their IT to cloud providers makes sense.

Yet compliance costs at present are artificially high and are bound to fall. The PCI regime for instance is proving to be a wild goose chase, which will end sooner or later when proper security measures are finally deployed to prevent replay of payment card numbers. Information security in general is expensive largely because our commodity PCs, applicances and desk top apps aren’t so well engineered. This has to change — even if it takes another decade — and when it does, the safety margin of outsourcing services will drop, and once again, people will probably prefer to do their computing closer to home.

Still, if cloud computing provides corporates with lower compliance costs for another ten years, then that will be a pretty good trot.