Reach for the sky – making high performance cloud computing easy for all

We have about 100 compact disks (CDs) in a special set of shelves in the living room. No one has listened to them for years, but we keep them anyway – more as physical testimonials to the kind of people we used to be than as efficient optical data storage. The combined storage (100 x 650MB) could now easily fit onto a £35 USB stick, at 0.03% of the physical space or stored online with instant access for under £15 per year. The digital content was long ago ripped to a compressed format and loaded onto cloud storage – to be listened to anywhere, on any of our portable computers, tablets or smart phones.

Modern digital content is all delivered like this. We have subscriptions to online TV shows and movie providers, electronic books and music. I’m wondering why I ever thought I could “own a movie” just by having a physical copy of it. These days you just decide what you want to watch or listen to and stream it. Simple.

Modern banking is also now online. Early quibbles about data security and fraudulent hacking have been swept aside by the overwhelming convenience and power of 24-hour availability and branch office cost savings. We even have fully electronic money: plastic cards are being virtualised, being replaced by apps that run on our phones. The state-of-the-art data encryption technology underpinning this world is robust to brutal direct attack, and is constantly evolving with new technology – led by the most qualified specialists money can buy.

Interestingly the highly competitive world of web-based services has driven a revolution in the usability of online software. Clunky old websites are being replaced by slick new versions, designed by experts to minimise “cognitive friction” – the chief impediment between your requirements and your money. This world has rapidly developed its own idioms – reusable templates for engagement – to accelerate deployment and ensure that the end user does not have to re-learn basic skills.

The benefits and the economic stimulation resulting from this are self-evident. A digital world delivered through a secure portable interface. Brilliant!

Many of my best friends are engineers – so I hesitate to be too critical. However, it is amazing that the technical savvy, inventiveness and can-do mantra of engineering has proven so resilient to the digital megatrends above. We still see high-end engineering analysis software running on desktops, data exchanged via physical media and GUI interfaces that require years of experience to master.

We could wonder why this is the case – perhaps as engineers we want to shroud our craft with mystery to confuse outsiders; maybe the value added by engineering analysis work occurs too early in the project lifecycle to be seen as worth investment; maybe no-one has really looked at the security of existing practises in order to form a comparison with modern alternatives (where every interaction is logged). Perhaps it is a combination of all of these.

The benefits of online engineering arguably outstrip the leverage of online shopping – relatively I mean. We used to refer to the “distributed virtual enterprise” as a kind of asymptotic nirvana, where entire supply chains from OEMs down to component SMEs could interact seamlessly and in real time to respond to market needs and new technology developments. We possibly didn’t really believe it was achievable – just consider the requirements for data bandwidth, storage, processing and federated access! Also, standards for data exchange – we’d all have to speak the same digital language.

But wait – we have this now! The whole Internet is connected using common standards – we don’t need new ones. As an aside, we probably do want more powerful translation services – but that’s another article!

And the upside for individual organisations is staggering. I still meet engineers who complain about resource availability: “we only have a small cluster”, or “we run out of software licenses”, or “I’m waiting for the data to be packaged and sent”. Into these statements read, “My customer is waiting too long”, “We are limiting the scope of our business”, and “our software vendor has us over a barrel”.

With online engineering, the computing resource available is virtually limitless: zero capital expenditure (CAPEX) so that even the smallest organisation can quote for analysis jobs alongside the big boys. True digital democracy. Software vendors are shifting their positions too – more and more engineering applications are available in the cloud. Look for some major announcements later this year.

We will also start to see the emergence of professional services for the digital economy. These will include legal and commercial frameworks, plus other value-added functions as insurance (data loss, corruption or delay), curation (keeping data up to date with current formats and software versions), brokering and market-making. The first movers in this new economy will – I think – make a fortune!

So I’ve convinced myself to ditch the old CD shelves. How about you?

If you would like to understand more about the type of cloud solutions that David is speaking about please click here.