Maybe 5 Computers: 2015 Cloud Predictions

Prophets or Fools?

The history of computing is replete with observations and predictions from visionaries as well as … not-so-visionaries. The latter includes (in)famous statements such as:

“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” – Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, 1977

“Apple is already dead.” – Nathan Myhrvold, former Microsoft CTO, 1997

“The Internet is … a series of tubes.” – US Senator Ted Stevens, R-AK, 2006

But even in such awkward company as this, one quote stands out:

ephraim1“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” – IBM Chairman and CEO Thomas Watson, Sr., 1943

While it’s unclear whether Mr. Watson ever actually said this, the idea seems ludicrous today. After all, according to Cisco there are already far more computing devices than people on the planet. However, as technology continues to evolve, I’m beginning to think the quote is far more prescient than previously supposed.

Rise of the Machines

Computing technology is currently undergoing the biggest and most fundamental shift in its history. I’m referring to cloud computing, which is transforming information technology from a highly-specialized technical discipline to a commodity.

In some ways, this shift is “déjà vu all over again.” Consider the history of electric power. Before it was the utility we virtually take for granted today, the generation and transmission of electricity was a highly specialized and contentious topic. In the 1880’s, Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse fought the “War of Currents” to determine whether direct or alternating current would become the predominant standard for power distribution.

ephraim2Today’s technology wars are being fought by a handful of major cloud players. These so-called “hyperscale” service providers operate massive computing farms. They spend billions of dollars a year on capacity. And they compete largely on price. Smaller providers simply can’t keep pace with the “800 pound gorillas” like Amazon and Microsoft. As the cloud computing industry shakes out, we’re likely to be left with the equivalent of “maybe 5 computers.”

“When Clouds Compete, You Win!”

The good news for consumers of IT services – which includes almost every enterprise in existence – is that cloud computing is transforming IT from a technology discussion to a business discussion. And that’s a good thing. As a business manager, should you really have to care about the chips and devices that serve your applications? Going back to our electric power analogy, that would be like worrying about who manufactured the turbines used to generate your electricity. What you really care about is capacity, quality and price, isn’t it? And that’s the way it should be with computing technology.

Tapping into the Matrix

ephraim3One of the key advancements in making electricity popular and cost-effective was the transmission grid. The grid ensured near-ubiquitous access to consumers. If you have any doubts about the importance of electricity to modern life, just think about what happens when the power goes out. Similarly, today’s information consumers are so dependent upon connectivity that they feel completely lost without it.

As our consumption of information shifts from small clusters of devices to true utility computing, connectivity will become ever more critical. For many, today’s public Internet with its best-effort routing and delivery simply won’t be adequate. Instead, solutions like Equinix Cloud Exchange are becoming increasingly important. The Equinix Cloud Exchange delivers secure, high-performance, high capacity interconnectivity to major cloud service providers globally.

Predictions for 2015 and Beyond

So what does the future hold? Here’s my short list:

1) Cloud adoption will accelerate as the early majority gains enough confidence from innovators and early adopters to start moving critical workloads to the cloud.

2) Drivers will grow to embrace the notion of self-driving cars as they increasingly see the roads dominated by distracted drivers.

3) Consumers will eventually realize that Ken Olsen was right, and that there really is no reason to have a computer in your home. In their place, users will demand high-quality connectivity to the information grid to feed their surgically-implanted information nodes (SINs).

What do you think, prophet or fool? Only time will tell.

(Oh, and by the way, the Internet really is like a series of tubes.)