Over the last couple of years, cloud computing has taken the business world by storm. The idea of storing and managing data on virtualized serversoften residing on the Internetisn't particularly new. But thanks to ongoing advances in IT infrastructure and far more sophisticated applications, individuals and organizations around the world now have the ability to connect to data and computing resources anywhere and anytime.
It's a trend with enormous implications. "Cloud computing provides access to large-scale remote resources in a very efficient and quick manner," explains Karsten Schwan, director of the Center for Experimental Research in Computing Systems at Georgia Tech University. "It has the potential to dramatically change business models and the way people interact with one another."
Nowhere is this more obvious than in developing nations, where the ability to access resources has often been limited and building out a robust IT infrastructure can be daunting. The emergence of cloud computing changes the stakes for entrepreneurs, small and large businesses, researchers, and governments. "It has the potential to level the playing field because it breaks down barriers to entry," says Steve Bratt, CEO of the non-profit World Wide Web Foundation.
To be sure, cloud computing offers an opportunity to create entirely new types of businessesand business modelsthat couldn't have been imagined or weren't possible only a few years ago. In addition, they open up new marketsincluding vast numbers of mobile phone usersthat previously weren't reachable. However, at the same time, cloud computing presents entirely new challenges and obstacles, particularly in regions coping with limited technical expertise, bandwidth, and IT resources.
Although cloud computing has become something of a buzzword over the last couple of years, it's unwise to dismiss it as the latest overhyped tech trend. "It has the potential to create a paradigm shift in the way IT resources are used and distributed," says P.K. Sinha, chief coordinator for research and development at the Center for Development of Advanced Computing at Pune University in India.
Clouds provide a powerfuland often otherwise unattainableIT infrastructure at a modest cost. In addition, they free individuals and small businesses from worries about quick obsolescence and a lack of flexibility. Yet, at the same time, large organizations can consolidate their IT infrastructure across distributed locations, Sinha points out. Even government entities can benefit by enabling services to consumers on a shared basis. In some cases, cloud-based computing grids enable research that simply wasn't possible in the past.
These days, clouds enable a wide range of services. Already, several industry behemothsincluding Amazon, Google, and Microsofthave introduced cloud-based commercial services. In addition, IBM has established cloud computing centers in Beijing, China; Bangalore, India; Hanoi, Vietnam; Sao Paulo, Brazil; and Seoul, South Korea.
For a growing number of organizations worldwide, it's a quick and affordable way to tap into infrastructure as an Internet service. In addition, a growing array of enterprise software vendors, including Salesforce.com and Freshbooks.com, exclusively provide cloud-based services for customers. And Apple and Blackberry make it increasingly simple to store data in the cloud and sync it with multiple devices, including computers and smartphones.
But the story doesn't end there. In India, Africa, and South America, cloud computing allows organizations to connect and collaborate through online applications such as Google Docs. "Many people, including college graduates, do not have access to the latest hardware and software," says Venansius Barya Baryamureeba, dean for the Department of Computing and IT at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda. What's more, the ability to dial into cloud resources allows organizations lacking an internal IT infrastructure to scale up and compete more effectively.
In fact, the possibilities are limited only by creativity. In the southern Sahara region of Sahel, for example, farmers now use a cloud-based trading system that disseminates information about planting schedules, crop status, harvesting times, and market prices through mobile phones. In India, the Apparel Export Promotion Council has developed a cloud platform that provides computing services and enterprise software to more than 11,000 of its membersmost of whom lack the capital and resources to build their own IT infrastructure.
Some cloud initiatives link nations and people in entirely new ways. For example, U.S.-based CrowdFlower has introduced a cloud labor service that connects organizations searching for temporary workers to refugees in Kenya. The iPhone app helps a business outsource a basic task, such as finding phone numbers for marketing departments at various companies and entering them into a spreadsheet. So far, Kenyan workers have completed more than 158,000 unique tasks. These individuals earn as much as U.S. $28 per week, about eight times more than they get from typical jobs in a refugee camp.
Cloud computing could "level the playing field," says World Wide Web Foundation's steve Bratt, "because it breaks down barriers to entry."
Even more remarkable is how clouds connect developers all over the world to technology and markets that would have been entirely out of bounds in the past. The New York Times recently reported that Wilfred Mworia, a 22-year-old developer in Nairobi, Kenya, built an iPhone app using only an online iPhone simulator (iPhone service isn't available in Kenya), which he can sell all over the world.
As geography becomes irrelevant, further changes will occur, Baryamureeba notes. In fact, both developed and developing nations will benefit through cloud-based software as a service model. "A software product developed in the USA can be extended and supported by a developer in another place, such as Uganda," he says. "And software can be purchased at a lower cost by eliminating components that are not relevant to a developing country's needs."
What makes cloud computing so powerful is that it is based on a system of modularity. The use of virtualization and a cloud platform allows organizations to break down services and systems into smaller components, which can function separately or across a widely distributed network. Servers can be located almost anywhere and interfaces can be changed and customized on the fly. These services and software are only as far away as an Internet or mobile phone connection.
Nevertheless, challenges and problems remain. One of the biggest, Georgia Tech's Schwan says, is the lack of connectivity and adequate bandwidth in many parts of the worldparticularly where dialup networks persist. "Larger data sets require more bandwidth than many locations provide. It's not practical to constantly upload and download all the data. In some instances the technology isn't completely adequate, even in the U.S. and Europe, to enable large data transfers between a company's own infrastructure and the public cloud."
Another problem is the dependability of local power supplies. In many developing nations, electricity unpredictably switches on and offand the ability to connect to a remote data center can be dicey. "An organization's IT infrastructure may become inaccessible for some time or data sitting in the cloud could be lost," says Gautam Shroff, vice president at Tata Consultancy Services Ltd. in Delhi, India. Finally, as with any shared cloud environment, cloud providers and users must address backup, privacy, and security issues.
In India, cloud computing is projected to grow from a $50 million industry in 2009 to a $15 billion industry by 2013.
Nevertheless, cloud computing is poised to take off over the months and years ahead. Baryamureeba believes that cloudsand particularly mobile platforms connecting to themare a game-changing technology. They extend computing technology into remote areas and provide opportunities for health care, education, and economic development. Meanwhile, "researchers gain access to the same high-performance computing environments as their colleagues in developed nations, and they can be just as competitive and productive," says Baryamureeba.
Make no mistake, cloud computing is here to stay. In India, for example, cloud computing is projected to grow from a $50 million industry in 2009 to a $15 billion industry by 2013. Other parts of the world are following the same growth trajectory. "It's a catalyst," observes Bratt of World Wide Web Foundation, "for a wave of innovation and change in developing nations."
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Nir Kshetri, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, contributed to the development of this article.
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