Information Systems, the discipline of organizing computers and software resources to facilitate decision-making and collaboration, is undergoing a revolution. The opportunity is allowed by cheap data storage and high-speed networking. The necessity is driven by the unpredictability of demand and the threat of getting hacked. These factors have driven the construction of huge data and compute centers that allow users to focus on business solutions rather than the details of managing and protecting their data.
As a developer, this proposition is really attractive to me. I’m building a sensor network at home, and I’d like to capture the data without running a server full time. I’d also like to be able to draw upon back-end services such as web or database servers without having to install and maintain software that is designed for far more sophisticated operations.
The fundamental proposition of the cloud is to create an infrastructure that allows we as consumers to pay only for the data and software that we actually use. In concept, it’s similar to the shift from cooking on a wood-fired stove fed by the trees on our lot to cooking on an electric range. Once we shift to electricity, if we decide to open a restaurant, we don’t have to plan ahead ten years to be certain that we have enough wood, we just pay for more electricity. Similarly, if I want to develop a new solution for home heating control, I shouldn’t have to pay a huge amount of money for software licenses and computer hardware up front – that should be borne by the end-users. And, just as a chef probably doesn’t want to learn a lot about forestry, so I shouldn’t have to become an expert in administration of operating systems, databases and web servers. Cloud services promise to relieve me of that worry.
It was in part to assess the reality of that promise that I spent the last two days at Microsoft’s Cloud Road Show in Los Angeles. What I learned was that, while they pursue the large corporate customers, Microsoft is still a technology-driven company, and so they want to hear that they are also helping individual developers succeed.
But there were several amusing disconnects.
Satya Nadella took the helm at Microsoft following Steve Balmer’s debacles with Windows 8 and Nokia. Balmer was pursuing Apple’s vision of constructing a completely closed ecosystem of consumer devices and software. Nadella, head of the Azure cloud services effort, blew the top off of that plan, declaring that Microsoft would deliver solutions on any hardware and operating system that defined a viable market. Perversely, what I learned at the roadshow was that Microsoft is still very much committed to hardware, but not the kind of hardware you can carry on your person. Rather, it’s football fields stacked three-high with shipping containers full of server blades and disk drives, each facility drawing the power consumed by a small city. None of the containers belongs to a specific customer (actually the promise is that your data will be replicated across multiple containers). They are provisioned for aggregate demand of an entire region, running everything from a WordPress blog to global photo-sharing services such as Pinterest.
This scale drives Microsoft to pursue enterprise customers. This is a threat to established interests – large data centers are not an exportable resource, and so provide a secure and lucrative source of employment for their administrators. But that security comes with the pressure of being a bottleneck in the realization of others’ ambitions and a paranoid mind-set necessary to avoid becoming the latest major data-breach headline. The pitch made at the roadshow was that outsourcing those concerns to Microsoft should liberate IT professionals to solve business problems using the operations analysis software offered with the Azure platform.
To someone entering this magical realm, however, the possibilities are dizzying. At a session on business analytics, when asked what analysis package would be best to use for those looking to build custom algorithms, the response was “whatever tool your people are familiar with.” This might include R (preferred by statistics professionals) or Python (computer science graduates) or SQL (database developers). For someone looking to get established, that answer isn’t comforting.
But it reveals something else: Microsoft is no longer in the business of promoting a champion – they are confident that they have built the best tools in the world (Visual Studio, Office, Share Point, etc.). Their goal is to facilitate delivery of ideas to end customers. Microsoft also understands that means long-term maintenance of tightly coupled ecosystems where introduction of a malfunctioning algorithm can cost tens of millions of dollars, and viruses billions.
But what about the little guy? I raised this point in private after a number of sessions. My vision of the cloud is seeded by my sons’ experience in hacker communities, replete with “how-to” videos and open-source software modules. I see this as the great hope for the future of American innovation. If a living space designer in Idaho can source production of a table to a shop in Kentucky with a solid guarantee of supply and pricing comparable to mass-produced models, then we enter a world in which furniture showrooms are a thing of the past, and every person lives in a space designed for their specific needs. As a consumer, the time and money that once would have been spent driving around showrooms and buying high-end furniture is invested instead in a relationship with our designer (or meal planner, or social secretary).
Or how about a “name-your-price” tool for home budgeting? If you’ve got eighty dollars to spend on electricity this July, what should your thermostat setting be? How many loads of laundry can you run? How much TV can you watch? What would be the impact of switching from packaged meals to home-cooked? Can I pre-order the ingredients from the store? Allocate pickup and preparation time to my calendar?
Development of these kinds of solutions is not necessarily approachable at this time. The low-end service on Azure runs about $200 a month. From discussion, it appears that this is just about enough to run a Boy Scout Troop’s activity scheduling service. But I am certain that will change. Microsoft responded to the open-source “threat” by offering development tools and services for free to small teams. Their Azure IoT program allows one sensor to connect for free, with binary data storage at less than twenty dollars a month.
At breakfast on Wednesday, I shared some of these thoughts with a Microsoft solutions analyst focused on the entertainment industry. I ended the conversation with the admission that I had put on my “starry-eyed philosopher” personality. He smiled and replied “You’ve given me a lot to think about.” It was nice to spend some time with people that appreciate that.