February 27, 2009

Web Two Dot Oh DotCom Dot Cloud Colon Slash Slash

This afternoon I had the opportunity to attend a session presented by TechCrunch, hosted by Steve Gillmor, around cloud computing, featuring some of the Valley's thought leaders, from many of the biggest names in all of tech, ranging from Salesforce.com to Rackspace, Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft, Sun, Ning, FriendFeed, Facebook, Amazon.com and a small handful of startups. Each of the participants discussed how their product leveraged the cloud, what it was about this new approach to harvesting data storage and computing that made their products execute the way they do, and how they approached new problems of bandwidth, capacity, licensing, security and scale.

The event, essentially a two parter, with early-stage start-ups presenting for five minutes apiece in front of an expert panel for the first half, and a roundtable of technology elite for the second half, saw a healthy dosage of skepticism mixed in with what was largely a genuine desire for these companies to try and deliver higher-quality services for their users by taking advantage of new protocols.

With everybody saying the word "cloud" to represent customer data or computing being stored independently of local physical disk or blade servers, the word itself grew to be mocked. One 'expert' said cloud was the new "dotcom". Another compared the cloud to rabbits as they kept multiplying, and a third called the cloud "Kool-Aid". With the move of terminology over the last decade from "Dotcom" to "Web 2.0" to "Cloud", you can see why people would be necessarily wary of jumping on the newest movement with two feet.

All names aside, there is as much fact as there was fad in the cloud. The cloud's benefits are clear as data can be stored independent of physical disks, and doesn't require dedicated storage and server administration. Code developers want anytime access to infinite bandwidth and storage, and consumers want instant response times. As the panel debated the genesis of enterprise apps absorbing consumer application features, it was clear that each was facing challenges impossible just a decade ago, and the cloud's availability changed everything.

Paul Buchheit of FriendFeed referred to the Internet as just one big computer, and said that instead of shipping software in a big cardboard box with floppies to introduce version 3.0, you could just ship new code three times a day. Mike Schroepfer of Facebook talked about how his team could handle 1 billion status messages of 100 characters each on a different level of storage than the 1 billion images, each a few megabytes apiece. And Marc Benioff of Salesforce.com won the prize for the best quote of the day, saying, "As an industry, we are always overestimating what we can do in a year and underestimating what we can do in a decade."

Benioff's quote is no doubt true. The next engineering team I meet that hits the initial proposed date with all the requested features is the first one I will meet. But a decade ago, we wouldn't have expected to stream full-length feature films without buffering, or do many of the things we do online, always having been limited by location, bandwidth, memory, storage, or even operating systems. Now, the operating system is even less a part of the discussion. While the panel was held at Microsoft's Silicon Valley office, practically all presentations were done on Apple Macintosh, and featured FireFox, not Internet Explorer. Now, consumers and businesspeople expect to get all their applications and data from anywhere on any device. It was enough that Benioff even left his laptop behind on a trip to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in favor of his BlackBerry Bold.

It is happening. Not too long ago, yet another meme went around the Web on what the Internet looked like in 1996 - a blink of an eye when you think about it. In 1996, I was hosting a personal home page, using WebStar, on my Apple Macintosh Performa 631 CD, with all of 8 megabytes of RAM. Now, my blog is hosted on the cloud. The images themselves are on the cloud. My participation in social networks like Facebook and FriendFeed... is done on the cloud. And I'm taking my iPhone everywhere. I used to despise the term cloud, and used to rail against it with my colleagues at 3Cube back in 1998 to 2000, but it looks like I lost that battle. Good thing all of us as consumers are winning.