Frictions in the Cloud

This image, poking fun of the universal claims of cloud computing, is replicated in hundreds of places across the web. I don't know its original source.

In light of the recent failures of Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud service, Paul Ceruzzi has pointed out the very grounded reality of the cloud. It all comes down to real data centers in real physical locations that can suffer from real failures. The dream of a seamless, frictionless net of service-based computing, however, is not likely to suffer greatly from this blow, for it is as old as computer nets themselves. The guiding metaphor was then, as it is now, the electric power grid. Computing power would be drawn from whatever machine had the most spare capacity, loads would automatically be balanced across time and space, and services from a given center would seamlessly fail over to another in case of malfunction (Of course this is exactly what failed to happen last week). The best-known early example of this comes from MIT management professor Martin Greenberger's 1965 Atlantic Monthly article, "The Computers of Tomorrow". This article is sometimes referred to as a prophecy of the Internet, but it is not that. Consider:

It will no longer be necessary to conduct costly surveys and door-to-door interviews to acquire data on consumer tastes or investment behavior, at times only to find that the data are inappropriate or anachronistic for the needs of research. Research investigators will specify their precise data requirements and will requisition custom studies from the files of the information utility. The studies will be timely and current, and a great boon to analysts and simulators. As their use develops, these data studies will be invaluable for corporate decision-making and government planning, to the point where they may be woven into the very fabric of these processes. It is not a mere flight of fancy to anticipate the day when information automatically acquired during the operation of the information utility feeds directly into decision mechanisms that regulate the economy and the activity of companies.

Or consider another well-known computer visionary, J.C.R. Licklider, who in 1978 [subscription required] articulated applications for "information networks" that included the real-time monitoring of the health of the entire population and the replacement of the filtered mass media with "a multidimensional dynamic model of the world that each individual can explore in his own way...” Such ambitions have only recently become even partly realizable, with the increasing ubiquity of mobile computing devices that automatically collect data about their user's daily activities. They have a scope that's at once exhilarating and a bit frightening. Why have information networks repeatedly generated such all-encompassing visions of frictionless data flow and data-processing, despite the extreme difficulty (if not impossibility) of realizing such visions in real engineered systems? I'll consider this more next time.