Article - Issue 52, September 2012

Rising Clouds

Dr Scott Steedman CBE FREng

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Dr Scott Steedman FREng

Dr Scott Steedman CBE FREng

As the world watched a suburban house rise slowly from the stage at the London 2012 Olympic opening ceremony, Sir Tim Berners-Lee FREng FRS appeared, working at a desk on a computer keyboard. This was extraordinary public recognition for the man who bequeathed us the World Wide Web and, more generally, for the role of software engineering in human development. But even as the internet reaches maturity, the next chapter in the information revolution has already begun.

Cloud computing will transform how we use our computing devices. Whether you approach this as a start-up company, global business or private citizen, the cloud offers extraordinary new opportunities to rethink traditional approaches to the delivery and use of information technology services for corporate or personal use. It also brings new challenges for engineers and governments in ensuring security, reliability and access.

The cloud concept is simple. Instead of storing ever more files and increasingly sophisticated software applications on local computers or corporate networks, why not use the power of broadband to let someone else store or process it for you? Apple, Microsoft and Google are just a few of the major US software companies already offering cloud services.

There are two distinctly different offerings from this brave new world. The first is cloud storage, the ability to keep files remotely on third-party servers for access on demand. This route is well trodden by the likes of Amazon, Facebook, Dropbox and many other providers.

Storing files in the cloud brings its own dilemma; providers will have access to the information that their customers have uploaded. Even if files are held securely, there is a potential gold mine of information for analysis of business and social preferences. There is real concern about how cloud providers can balance their legitimate interest in innovating new products and services with the temptation to abuse their privileged access to personal data.

The second offering the cloud brings is new levels of processing power, hitherto unavailable to ordinary companies at competitive rates. Complex analytics already provides voice recognition on smart phones, for example, but the processing is done in the cloud, not on the phone itself. Instead of investing in hardware and infrastructure themselves, businesses can use virtual services in the cloud more cheaply and easily.

European R&D funding is supporting a series of major projects aimed at delivering these virtual networks to small and medium sized enterprises (SME), making them more accessible, more functional and more resilient. In the words of Neelie Kroes, Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda, “2012 is the year when the cloud grows up. Let’s be ready.”

But are we ready? Critically, for the cloud to work, systems need to be connected to it. Laptops and mobile devices will become less and less useful without 24/7 broadband access, everywhere they go. This means improving network performance not only in cities but throughout the UK.

Government has long recognised the danger of a widening digital divide between urban and rural areas. Yet two years into government, barely a penny of the near £1 billion it has committed under different broadband programmes has been invested in the network.

Should government redirect these subsidies to bring fully open access optical fibre networks within the reach of every community across the country? This is the recommendation of the House of Lords’ Select Committee on Communications in its report Broadband for all, published in July 2012. A complementary approach set out in a report by Oxera for Vodafone late last year recommends a co-investment model, whereby industry and the regulator agree long-term investment objectives in passive fibre-access. Both approaches imply acceptance of the effective monopoly characteristic of rural broadband infrastructure. Or should we continue to let the market roll out high speed broadband at its own pace and plug the gaps afterwards?

The global cloud computing market is predicted to expand six-fold between now and 2020. SMEs in the UK need every support to grasp the window of opportunity that the rise of cloud computing presents. But there are important questions to be asked about the government’s commitment to broadband, the provision of wifi in public places, rural coverage and performance targets. Engineers will determine how fast we meet this challenge. The Royal Academy of Engineering should light the way.

Dr Scott Steedman CBE FREng

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