In preparation for my final paper, I’ve been doing a lot of research of cloud computing and virtualization technology. What initially drew me in was the idea of further abstracting the computational process from the user’s viewpoint. The ability to access the full store of applications and features we’ve become accustomed to on a regular PC or enterprise suite, but without the accompanying hardware (or software) constraints. As I’ve learned about this process, I’ve come to see that certain design principles of the web are central to the functionality these technologies.
Cloud computing is an inherently combinatorial design technology. It takes the various software, IT infrastructure, and platform services, and combines them with the extensibility and network-ability of the internet to produce a widely accessible and scalable virtualized environment. The user is no longer constrained by the processing powers “on-site”, as they can access the servers of large corporations with industrial sized computational powers. This has been the key to the Software-as-a-Service, Platform-as-a-Service, and Infrastructure-as-a-Service models that are so dominant today. Anytime you use the Google Suite, Microsoft Suite or Amazon Web Services, you’re connecting to the mammoth server powers of that company.
Modular architecture of the software layer and hardware components is also a central design feature of these technologies, particularly when it comes to server design. In the 60s and 70s, the dominant mode of computing was to use “large” mainframes with dumb terminal ports used to access the mainframe and its computation power. Virtualization is essentially going back to that model, but using the presence of the internet to give modern mainframes the ability to provide an IP address that “thin clients” can connect to and access from anywhere with internet connectivity. This is highly modular as any thin client can access any server, so you’re not rooted to any one device. Easy to switch out. Easy to move. Scalable. Extensible.
In analyzing the role of the web in this technology, one much also reckon with the entire ecosystem of industry relations. Amazon, Microsoft, IBM and other Cloud Computing industry leaders are all deeply embedded in an existent socio-economic framework, and reliant on the older forms of infrastructure, originally built for the telegraph and telephone, to transmit their data. As we move much more of our computing to the internet-based cloud, the owners and operators of these transmission lines become highly important players in the ecosystem.
The internet has made it possible to access processing powers far beyond your own “on-site” capability, meaning you no longer have to go through the traditional effort of installation and maintenance. You can just sign in and access. From a user perspective, the emergence and predicted dominance of the cloud computing enabled Software-as-as-Service and Application-as-a-Service model will have dramatic implications for how we conceptualize and use computers. In his book “The Future of the Internet — And How To Stop It”, Jonathan Zittrain lays out a host of concerns around the “tethering” of appliances and privacy issues that could come out of this model, which is all the more reason to apply conscious design principle to this still growing technology.
1. Jonathan Zittrain, The Future of the Internet–And How to Stop It. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009.
2. Ron White, How Computers Work. 9th ed. Que Publishing, 2007
3. Janna Anderson, and Lee Rainie. “The Future of Apps and Web.” Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, March 23, 2012.