Harnessing Power around the World ; Cloud Computing Corrals Servers by the Thousands and Opens New Vistas

By Hardy, Quentin | International New York Times, June 13, 2014 | Go to article overview

Harnessing Power around the World ; Cloud Computing Corrals Servers by the Thousands and Opens New Vistas


Hardy, Quentin, International New York Times


Analysts estimate that over the next six years, 90 percent of new spending on Internet and communications technologies will be on cloud-based technology.

SynapDx searches hundreds of thousands of genetic markers, looking for clues about autism in 880 children across 20 states. A few years ago, this would have been the stuff of a major company or research institution. Thanks to cloud computing, the start-up in Lexington, Mass., does it with 22 people, a few laptops and an Internet connection.

"Without the cloud I'd need $1 million, plus staff, just for the computer," said Mark DePristo, a vice president for SynapDx. Instead, his company spends $25,000 a month on computing and gets more computer power as it needs it.

You already work in the cloud, too, if you use a smartphone, tablet or web browser. And you're using the cloud if you're tapping online services like Dropbox or Apple's iCloud or watching "House of Cards" on Netflix.

Cloud computing, an airy term for real systems of networked computers, powers thousands of mobile games, workplace software programs and advanced research projects. These services harness global networks of millions of computers, renting and using unprecedented amounts of computing power.

For the half-century that computers have been part of the workplace, companies have purchased their own machines for corporate data centers. But that may be about to change. Industry analysts at IDC figure that, if largely cloud-based things like mobile apps, big data, and social media are counted, over the next six years almost 90 percent of new spending on Internet and communications technologies, a $5 trillion global business, will be on cloud-based technology.

Technically, cloud computing refers to an efficient method of managing lots of computer servers, data storage and networking. More than a decade ago, engineers figured out ways that data and software could be distributed efficiently across several machines and their power pooled for collective use.

It no longer mattered which servers were running a job; it was just inside this "cloud" of machines. There were immediate performance gains, since stand-alone servers had more capacity than they typically used, in case there was a surge in demand. Linking the machines together into a larger "virtual" system, eased the surge problem and freed a lot of computation.

And it became available to anyone able to pay the rent.

"The biggest events in the world -- the World Cup, the Super Bowl, the big reality shows -- all use the cloud" for various online services, said Andy Jassy, the head of Amazon Web Services, or AWS, the largest cloud computing company. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration broadcast the Mars Lander using AWS, and the Obama campaign used it to place a million calls on Election Day 2012. Even part of the Central Intelligence Agency is inside AWS.

A handful of big companies dominate this new sort of technology. Customers like Netflix and Shell run on AWS. In Shell's case, it's for seismic research. For Netflix, it's for all those movies and television shows streaming to your television and computers.

Google has a big cloud, too. You're on it if you use any sort of Google service like email and photo editing. Seventy million Nigerians recently registered for local elections on Google's cloud and millions more study on Google's cloud through the Khan Academy educational service. The young messaging app, Snapchat, grew to millions of users overnight without spending millions to support them by running on Google's cloud.

Microsoft tapped cloud technology for running things like email accounts and Xbox games. Now it sells its cloud resources. For example, a Chinese automobile company called Qoros uses Microsoft's cloud, called Azure, to connect its cars to social media and provide entertainment. Google and Yahoo developed cloud techniques for their search businesses, along the way pioneering big-data analysis inside their clouds. …

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