June 10, 2011

What is Cloud Computing?

What is Cloud Computing?

When Bill Gates founded Microsoft 30 years ago, he began with the lofty goal: to put a computer on every desk, in every home. This vision may have been a fantasy to most people at the time, when you couldn’t even buy a PC at the store, and yet today, 1.2 billion people are using PCs with the Microsoft Windows operating system around the world.

To what can we attribute this change?

First, the adoption of the PC by businesses in the1980s dramatically altered the staid world of technology, characterized by “big iron” mainframe computers that once took up entire offices, even buildings!

Second, the emergence of the Internet in the 1990s and the more recent improvements in affordable and reliable Internet bandwidth here in Africa has given birth to a generation of applications for the Web, like search engines or online banking systems, that present completely new ways for people to find—and share—information. The use of the Internet in Africa has grown over 2000% since 2000, and that figure will only multiply as undersea telecommunications cable projects across the continent increase connectivity and further reduce costs for people to access the Web.

Third, with the rapid adoption of mobile phones, people have become more and more accustomed to staying constantly within reach of their friends and families. For the past decade, Africa has been leading the way on mobile adoption, with take up rates that exceeded 550% in the years 2003-2008, according to United Nations research.

Fourth, that constant connectivity has fed the growth of social technologies, like Facebook and Twitter, particularly when powered by the increasingly convenient and affordable mobile computing available on smartphones.

These factors in technology’s evolution over the past 30 years have combined to bring about another powerful shift in computing: the cloud.

By using the scale of the Internet to connect a variety of technical devices – anything from a huge server to the smallest of mobile phones – the cloud is an approach to computing that allows each of these technical endpoints to pool resources and work together. Some people have drawn the comparison for cloud computing to the way a water company pools and shares its supply from rivers, wells and reservoirs, so you can use the water whenever you choose at home.

This means the cloud can connect people to the information they need, wherever and whenever they need it.

While cloud computing is a relatively fashionable term in the technology industry these days, Microsoft has been exploring the cloud’s possibilities and rolling out its services since the 1990s. They may not have realized it, but 360 million people have been enjoying the benefits of the cloud through the use of Microsoft’s Web-based email, Hotmail, and businesses have been using Microsoft Exchange Server as a hosted email service for more than a decade.

As cloud computing takes hold across Africa, companies — from the smallest startups to the largest enterprises — will be able to automatically deploy the computing capabilities their employees need to drive innovation and reach customers, whether they are around the corner or across the globe. For example, a small business may want to get a Web-based application up and running quickly, without wanting to deal with the headaches of installing, deploying or maintaining the tool by its small (or non-existent) IT department. Others are looking to cloud computing to help meet fluctuations in a services’ demand.

For example, a global bank wants to provide a tax service online to its customers without the expense of hosting the application itself during peak taxation seasons. The common theme for these businesses is simplicity and cost-savings.

“Some businesses in Africa, and many more in the US, Europe and Asia, have already proved cloud computing’s promise by using it to complete tasks such as the processing and sharing of vast amounts of data over the Web, cutting costs and time for their limited technical staff, or extending their reach into customers, partners and out-of-office employees,” said Mark Walker, Director of the Vertical Industry Practice for IDC Middle East, Africa and Turkey.

Similar to the shifts we saw the PC or the Internet make in our personal and professional lives, the cloud will too. In fact, we believe that the cloud can have a positive impact across Africa in five significant ways:

1. The cloud will help people learn, decide and take action by enabling computing to understand what they are trying accomplish and deliver information and applications that match their intent.

2. The cloud will enhance social and professional interactions by connecting people in the way that is most convenient and productive.

3.The cloud will lead to smarter devices that deliver experiences that are perfectly aligned to where people are and what they are doing.

4. The cloud creates opportunities and responsibilities—opportunities for anyone with a good idea to reach customers anywhere in the world, combined with the responsibility to respect individual privacy everywhere and at all times.

5.Finally, the cloud will drive advances in server technology that will, in turn, drive improvements in the cloud as we strive to deliver innovative ways to manage storage and computing across hundreds of thousands of connected computers and devices.

But perhaps what’s most exciting about cloud computing isn’t what people are using it for right now; it’s what will happen when creative people in companies, classrooms and kitchens around the world get their hands on a new generation of technologies. No one can predict what new industries will be launched or what old challenges will be overcome. All we know for sure is that as this cloud computing change gathers momentum, the sky’s the limit.

Emmanuel Onyeje, general manager, Microsoft Anglophone West Africa