Cloud computing perspectives and questions

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The World Economic Forum started a research project at Davos 2009 concerning cloud computing, which they broadly define to include all kinds of remote services, from Software as a Service to virtual machines.

Andy Oram was asked to provide some ideas on the implications of cloud computing for business as well as its future operating environment. This wiki is a discussion forum where anyone with relevant and valid ideas can suggest points for his reply.


Benefits and drawbacks for potential clients

  • Total reliance on a cloud service (virtual machine services or SaaS)
    • May be valuable for start-ups and skunkworks
    • For larger organizations, useful for some well-defined functions, particularly non-critical ones. (But note that many companies use services for customer relations management and for paying employees, which could be considered critical functions.)
    • Requires a thorough understanding of the cloud service's operations, the risks involved, and management techniques to handle the service and its risks.
    • SaaS allows vendor to change or remove features capriciously, and clients cannot choose to keep old version by rejecting the upgrade
  • Use of cloud to supplement in-house operations
    • May be useful for:
      • Handling peaks and spikes
      • Planning growth that will eventually be moved in-house
    • Requires skills in both domains (in-house and cloud) as well as strategies for migrating and replicating between them.

Benefits and drawbacks of offering software as a service or using a development environment

  • Benefits are extremely compelling
    • Project start-up can be faster and cheaper
    • Potential clients can use software simply by visiting a web page--no need to download anything, unless a plugin is desired
    • Updates are immediate and do not require client action
    • Testing can be simplified by simply cloning an instance of the software environment
  • Many free software developers already use a service such as SourceForge or Launchpad to develop and distribute software.
  • Drawbacks
    • Main drawback, especially when using cloud service at a relatively high level (development environment or SaaS instead of virtual machines) is delivery through a web browser instead of running with native code
      • Performance impacts (diminishing as technology improves)
      • Lack of access to features of the operating system
      • Restrictions on user interface (diminishing as technology improves)
    • Other drawbacks are the same as for other organizations
      • Administration may be more difficult, at least at current stages of the field's development
      • Costs of using a virtual service may be higher than stand-alone servers for large projects
      • Development tailored to a particular development environment such as Google AppServer or Windows Azure may limit portability


  • The requirement that clients have network access makes cloud services inaccessible or difficult for:
    • People without Internet access (much of the developing world)
    • People with very slow Internet access (many areas in both the developing and developed world)
    • People without continuous Internet access (dial-up, also still common in both the developing and developed world)
  • On the other hand, services that are parsimonious in the use of bandwidth and client-side compute power can (through mobile devices) extend new services to previously cut-off populations.
    • Low computing power requirements on the client side simultaneously lower the cost of the client (e.g. PC, laptop, etc.)
    • SaaS application vendors are viewing mobile devices as an important part of their application stack


  • What degree of geographic distribution offers sufficient safety for:
    • Individuals or small companies
    • Major corporations and organizations with reliability requirements
    • Defense and other sensitive government functions
  • Benefits of automatically distributing files, perhaps among multiple vendors (example; Cleversafe)
  • Potential targets for attack in war or by terror
  • Should there be resilience standards?


  • Importance: Backups are recommended for persistent data to another system or service outside of the cloud.
  • Feasibility: All APIs can be emulated, so in theory organizations can use the same scripts and procedures to replicate operations in multiple services
  • Trends: There are calls for "open cloud computing," referring to standards that would facilitate portability.
    • Standards could lead to automatic, instant migration between cloud vendors.
    • As with all standardization, it's hard to:
      • Get vendors to cooperate on advances that would reduce client lock-in
      • Slow down innovation in an emerging technology enough to produce a standard

Environmental implications

  • Energy trade-offs between concentrated megaservers and smaller systems distributed around the world.
  • Impacts on localities where huge server farms are built.

Software freedom

  • Cloud eviscerates software freedom:
    • New software and patches can be built on free software while still being hidden behind the cloud (except free software under the rarely used Affero GPL).
    • (Mostly in regard to Saas) Even releasing the source code would have little to no effect, because the real lock-in for cloud services is its role as central repository: storing the data and (for sites with community aspects) providing connections among different visitors.
  • Solutions:
    • Open formats so clients can extract data and reuse it elsewhere
    • As alternative to centralized services, promote radically distributed systems
      • Individuals maintain control of their own data and data processing and peer with others to share data and processing.

Government use

  • Use of popular cloud services (such as Google Docs)
    • Benefits
      • Familiar to staff and public alike, and therefore easy to promote use
      • Quick and cheap to set up
      • Allows integration of government message and discussion with other popular forums
    • Drawbacks
      • Often have policies that run counter to government needs:
        • Services may access visitor data in ways that treat privacy cavalierly.
        • Services may force visitors to take on liability requirements that governments cannot do.
      • Lack the reliability, and sometimes the security, that the public has a right to expect of government services.
      • May not have features governments need.
  • Should governments collaborate on producing public-domain or open-source social networks and cloud services tailored to their needs?
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