The Cloud expands

There is a lot of rather vacuous talk about “the cloud”. Yes, there are plenty of clever things that can be done using communications and data resources at distant locations. But you'll no more find them in a cloud than you'll find Father Christmas at the North Pole.

Reality is actually a lot more interesting. Dealing with the technology that makes “the cloud” possible is a challenge, but one that offers huge potential. Even though, as an IT specialist, I am often consuming systems that I understand in some detail, the results can still be impressive. At home, I can monitor the status of office routers using a smart phone connected to home WiFi. The communications take a round trip of 500 miles, despite the office being only 100 yards from my home.

Web sites can pull things together from different continents. Some of my web sites are running in my own office, but they pull styling information and graphics from Amazon S3, which could involve servers at disparate locations spread around the world. Backup is sent to New York on a daily basis. Other web servers are running in Chicago, and there is little difference to be seen by the average user.

Demand for communication services is continuing to grow and will force very large investments. As always with IT, what seemed a vast resource is soon used up. Early enthusiasm saw optical fibre with huge capacity installed in the trunk network. So much so that many fibres were never lit, because advances in terminating equipment meant that they were not needed.

But what seemed ample communications capacity when the internet was first opened up to the world at large is being rapidly consumed, at the same time as demand for private circuits is growing fast. Web sites get more and more elaborate and email has been swamped by spam. Just as software seems able to outpace the performance gains of processors, so use of communications capacity is liable to overrun any given level of capacity.

Across both internet and private circuits used by businesses, the common factor is reliance on ethernet. Carriers still have backbones that were designed to cope with digitized voice as much as data, and they are having to work hard to meet the demands. Businesses are looking for communications solutions that allow them to treat wide area networks as if they were a single, large LAN.

Companies like Cisco and Avaya are heavily involved in all of these areas and are both researching new solutions and pushing existing solutions at all levels. Some people have emphasized the confluence of smart grid, cloud and video communications technologies. Influential figures of that kind are behind the building of larger and larger capacities.

Of course the emphasis on voice is now long gone. While the carriers fought hard for as long as possible to charge premium rates for voice over data, services such as Skype made it impossible to sustain the distinction. Voice charges are now minimal, with most providers trying hard to get subscribers on to fixed monthly payments as the call charges continue to be undermined. Or push so-called added value services where charges can be made that are unrelated to the cost of the communications.

Despite the falls in the cost of voice calls, providers are finding ways to boost revenues, and are now firmly committed to competing in the supply of data services. Along with their equipment suppliers, they are looking to offer better mechanisms to support the ever growing demand for distributed business operations.

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