Future of cloud computing: looking at the bigger questions

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There were 16 cloud commentators and they were locked in a room. It sounds like the precursor to a joke but this was no laughing matter (even though there were Englishmen, Irishmen and Scotsmen present) but an event that looked to explore all aspects of cloud in some detail. It sounds like it could have been deathly dull, but the Dell Think Tank was was one of the most interesting events I'd ever been involved in and the resulting debate

What made the event work so well was the wide-ranging experience of the participants. I was there as the token journalist but there were software vendors, cloud providers, analysts, lawyers, academics and Dell executives (generally keeping a low profile).

There are other events that feature a wide range of experts too but what made the Dell event work was the length of time – the debate lasted more than four hours (in three sessions) – and the way that speakers trying to promote their own agenda were quickly hushed up.

This meant that there was an opportunity to examine issues that went beyond the way that cloud was impacting on enterprises. It was a chance to discuss the future shape of companies, the changing role of the CIO and the wider impact that cloud has on society at large – all free from the usual company filter.

The general theme of the discussion was how the cloud market was shaping up in Europe – the discussion was a companion piece to a similar discussion that was held in the US. Participants were probed as to whether there was a difference between the US and Europe when it came to cloud and if so, what the differences were. There was general agreement that the US was ahead as Dell’s Stephen Spector said, US companies tend to adopt something new and work out what to do it, Europeans will take a good look before deciding to adopt it. Participants generally agreed there was a need to be more radical.

Key to the discussion was the state of the EU regulatory environment and the recently launched cloud computing strategy document from the European Commission, there was general agreement that the bureaucrats had no business trying to set any standards and that attempts to get involved in issues such as setting contracts would end in disaster. If the EU did have a role, it was decided, it was in trying to promote regional development and helping to implement broadband in areas where inhabitants were left disconnected.

There was sharp disagreement as to the state of privacy in Europe with two contrasting views. One opinion was that private data was private for ever and always, while the counterview was that there were degrees of privacy and in some cases, citizens could pay more to keep data private – particularly if it meant financing a health service. It was a rare moment when there was a divergence of views around the table – there was a frightening degree of unanimity.

There was also agreement that estimates that only a third of companies were using the cloud were incorrect. Many Think Tank participants pointed out the growth of shadow IT, slipping under the CIO’s radar. Similarly, the delegates were in concord that mission-critical software wasn’t being moved to the cloud, although some participants pointed out this was beginning to happen.

It wasn't a perfect event: none of the major cloud players was present: no Microsoft, no Salesforce, no Google and above all, no Amazon. There may have been difficulties in getting some of these to join a Dell inspired debate and, in truth, a major player may have skewed some of the debate – what was interesting was hearing a wide variety of views with no particular voice dominating.

The bigger loss was the non-appearance of anyone to put the customer view. As much of the discussion centred on the changing role of the CIO, it would have been useful to have heard a contribution from this endangered species.

Perhaps the biggest change would have been if Dell had gone ahead with its original intention and held the event in Estonia. Anyone mulling over the idea that Europe is lagging behind the US when it comes to cloud would have had their perceptions challenged by Estonia, It has risen from being a small country at the edge of the Soviet empire to being the most connected state in Europe, if not the world.

The emergence of Estonia as the most digitally-aware country in Europe is no accident. The country started from scratch and it's a lot easier to be innovative when the infrastructure has no legacy to get in the way – something the UK is painfully aware of.

It’s a situation that is mirrored by the commercial world. The problem for many companies in western Europe and the is that burden of decades of technological change. David Tait of Dell painted a grim picture of the problem faced by many banks: systems built up over many years. with more modern front-end tools bolted on, unable to move to the cloud. As Tait pointed out, the banks know that this situation is not sustainable in the long run: companies with this sort of bloated IT structure will come under attack from smaller, more innovative competitors.

And that really was the general theme of the discussion: cloud is coming and it is hopeless to try to pretend that it's not. There was an amazing degree of unanimity in the debate that businesses had to be more innovative, more radial and more willing to embrace change. There was also universal agreement that companies had to think radically. Quocirca analyst Clive Longbottom explained that the emergence of cloud meant that pharmaceutical researchers could set up a business and lay their hands on the sort of processing power previously only available to large pharmaceutical companies – a situation that completely transforms the market.

I was reminded at this point of the scene in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar just after the assassination when Cassius says “How many ages hence shall this our lofty scene be acted o’er, in states unborn and accents yet unknown.” The cloud scenario is going to be played in thousands of unborn companies using technologies yet unknown – any company who thinks that cloud is a fad or some sort of media hype is going to be left far behind.

Max Cooter

Max Cooter is a freelance journalist who has been writing about the tech sector for almost forty years.

At ITPro, Max’s work has primarily focused on cloud computing, storage, and migration. He has also contributed software reviews and interviews with CIOs from a range of companies.

He edited IDG’s Techworld for several years and was the founder-editor of CloudPro, which launched in 2011 to become the UK’s leading publication focused entirely on cloud computing news.

Max attained a BA in philosophy and mathematics at the University of Bradford, combining humanities with a firm understanding of the STEM world in a manner that has served him well throughout his career.