Dreaming about the Cloud in rural Ireland

Late last week I, and many others I would presume, were left further behind in the digital era at the stroke of a pen. What my monthly bill cheekily termed broadband was officially no longer! In fact I never really had broadband to begin with, reliant as I am on ancient lines of copper which valiantly struggled to connect me to a quaint legacy telephone exchange deep in rural Wexford. Often it has proven more useful as an indicator of wind speed than a delivery method of zeros and ones, with wind-generated friction on the line reducing those precious few minutes of 1.2 Mbps connectivity still further on stormy evenings. Well in the US the telecoms watchdog, the FCC, has just raised the bar on what can officially be labelled as broadband, state-side at least, by redefining the minimum download speed at 25 Mbps. I can but dream!

TelephoneThe necessity of good connectivity was emphasised at an excellent Amazon Web Services presentation (free lunch!)  recently held in Dublin to a crowded room of techies and business folks. As part of a European evangelisation tour by Amazon explaining its ‘Cloud’ services, even for those of us who claim to grasp the fundamentals of this assemblage of different technologies, the sheer scale and potential of the current implementations are quite something. When any budding entrepreneur hears that a firm valued by the market at 13$bn runs its operation on approximately 1300 virtual servers and manages these using 5 (yes five!) techies, what other new business models are possible and indeed now necessary for survival?

The language used throughout the presentation was interesting. Core elements such as processors, storage, networks and firewalls, the very foundations of the traditional IT world as I grew up with, were now referred to as ‘primitives’. They still matter but in the era of the Cloud, these are not what organisations need to focus on or waste resources managing. The constant mundane and costly tasks of patching, updates, configuring and upgrading hardware are all hidden behind the cloud management layer with organisations instead paying for agreed levels of availability, scalability and sheer processing power as and when needed. Processing and storage were presented as being simply another essential utility. Just as one is not overly concerned with the details of electricity production such as the generator’s location or the size of the turbine, so now with data processing and storage. The focus of users turns to the utility’s availability, scalability, security, and of course price. And price is ultimately what is going to force change in even the most conservative organisations. The ability to pay only for what you use, after you use it, with billing levels at the millisecond for processing, strips out capital expenditure up front with the effect of making start-ups viable which could never have survived previously. Frighteningly for some managers it can also provide very detailed information for internal billing, potentially doing away with squatting on systems where some other department picks up the cost line in their quarterly budgets. True TCO at last?

The Cloud however may be location ‘light’ in many respects, but location and geography still matter. Their relevance can be seen in two key areas. Firstly data, though ephemeral, exist physically on the media on which they are stored at rest or through which they transmitted. The value of that data, especially when personal, medical or financial for example, has meant the legal systems are trying desperately to keep-up with the technology, aiming to provide governance frameworks and stability in rapidly changing landscapes of technical possibility. Thus choosing the location in which your data is stored and processed is critical to system design and architecture when considering compliance.

Secondly the ability to access this utility and leverage the flexibility and an expanding set of extra services on offer are still ultimately dependent on connectivity. Not just intermittent, fair weather, the-gods-being-gracious sort of connectivity, but the reliable, ubiquitous and fast connectivity we rural citizens envy of our urban cousins. In fact, this I believe may be the single most important factor for regional development in the short term. Latency, or the delay in the information you send and retrieve from the servers hosting the systems and data you are accessing, is still an important factor whether for online gaming or financial services (where making a killing is a common activity!).

Other than between their own data centres in the same regions, between which Amazon have their own copious amounts of fibre connectivity, access to Cloud infrastructure is primarily reliant on the ye old internet. This means, de facto, that if you do not live in the urbanised centres of population with multiple companies vying to offer you cable and fibre connectivity, you are often excluded irrespective of how close the nearest data centre is to you. Excluded from on-line education, excluded from online Government services, excluded from accessing larger markets for your business, excluded from video chats with family and friends who like so many have sought better lives (and connectivity!) further afield after the crash.  The Government’s plan to roll out fibre to the smaller urban areas is indeed welcome and with some technologies such as wireless systems and satellite increasing coverage still further, access is still often haphazard, of variable speed and certainly not ubiquitous.

A new logic needs to be grasped and time is of the essence. Just as Cloud services can now be offered as a utility for businesses, for organisations and for local and national government, leveraging the benefits of these powerful innovations requires proper connectivity to users. Real connectivity needs to be as ubiquitous as finding a power socket on every wall and at FCC broadband speeds. As individuals who are participating citizens, data consumers and content producers we need changes to the planning system such that any new school, office, home or business premises will have requirements for adequate connectivity as they do water, waste and energy. Without connectivity inequality of opportunity will continue to increase, rural Ireland will fall further behind urban centres and the sustainability of rural economies will be weakened still further. Amazon demonstrated impressively what is possible but that potentiality and opportunity is still not for everyone. The Cloud will remain on the distant horizon for many and certainly for me while my connection on public transport is faster than at my desk at home!

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