Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Cloud and the Edge Device: What about the User

(Those who know me know I have had my hands more than a little full the last couple of months. Hopefully, things will settle down soon enough so that I have more time to devote to this.)

While a lot of the discussion in the last year or so has concentrated on the infrastructure and service side of Cloud, arguably the biggest effect upon the whole stack will be driven by what happens on the edge. As more and more people acquire, use and become comfortable with smart phones, tablets, and various roaming laptop form factors, demands for speed, flexibility and portability of applications and services to such mobile devices will skyrocket. No longer will road warriors want to have to be tethered to the office or a wired network to be productive and stay connected to the business and friends. They will also steadily have less and less patience for those "sticky situations" where applications and/or the data they need is "stuck" on a system in the office. While some might see a VDI approach as a way to overcome this, it is a far from perfect hack that twists a traditional paradigm to create a stop gap intermediary layer rather than have the edge device communicate directly with the wanted service itself.

The first place to go in order to best understand the edge is to look at the constraints that exist there. The first is connectivity. In the early days of the Internet when line speeds were measured in Kbps it was impractical to run data hungry applications, and it was not until broadband became more widely available that applications like streaming media became popular. Wifi, LTE and 4G will go a long way to do this with mobile devices however reliability and any latency issues will still need to be addressed. Uneven coverage, clogged masts and backhaul, as well as coverage holes and shadows must be dealt with through further improvements in the technology as well as presentation resilience of the service on the edge device itself.

The second constraint is form factor. While people have different thresholds for what they are willing to carry and use, it is clear that the edge device needs to be lightweight and relatively easy to carry and stow away while still being big and powerful enough to use comfortably. The advent of devices like the iPhone and iPad have just begun to cross the threshold for many. However, insufficient processing power, fast connectivity, and the proprietary nature of iOS have limited the eventual revolution thus far. This has driven the market for specialized applications, but has not yet quite opened the floodgates towards showing what might be possible with cloud services. As it is now clear there is a strong demand for these devices, I expect rapid improvements in technology, as well as the spread of more open operating systems such as Android, should allow operators, consumers and cloud service providers alike to rapidly hone in one this sweet spot and create an even larger market and drive ever more innovative usage patterns.

The third constraint is power. As people are always on the go, and wifi connections are generally power hogs, battery life is critical. As form factor is also important, these batteries must be small and lightweight, yet powerful, long lasting and easily recharged. While I have been impressed with the iPad (though not with any of my other mobile devices), a lot of progress still needs to be made here.

Finally, the last constraint, which I view as perhaps also the biggest opportunity for Cloud, is security. As regulators start to create ever harsher laws for the loss of data, it will become ever more important to tighten the amount of data that is allowed to reside on mobile devices. This may mean either creating a much sharper tiered storage policy towards sensitive and personal data that limits the amount that is actually stored on the edge device. If connectivity, power, and form factor are improved, this will allow for less resident data to exist on the device. Data can also be keyed back to, or have holes punched in it like a puzzle to be filled by, a central cloud service to allow it to be accessed in whole. As the other constraints are slowly pushed back, there will be ever more creative ways that this can be addressed.

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