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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Cloud computing at the cutting edge of research in Europe

Most of us living in Europe have been no stranger to clouds recently… not to mention wind, rain and in some cases spring floods. However, the Research in Future Cloud Computing meeting in Brussels today gave us an opportunity to focus on a less anti-social variety of cloud through a preview of a new expert group report: “Advances in Clouds”. The report builds on a cloud-gazing study published in January 2011 http://cordis.europa.eu/fp7/ict/ssai/docs/cloud-report-final.pdf which looked at opportunities for Europe in the then much-hyped cloud computing arena. More than a year on, the new report considers the current, fast-moving reality of cloud research today, and identifies areas where Europe – if supported strategically through Horizon 2020 – could become world leading.
 
Ken Ducatel of the soon to be renamed DG-ConNECT unit at the European Commission reminded us of the consultations that have been underway since 2011 to feed into a new cloud strategy for Europe. Focusing on the areas of legal framework, technical issues and strategy, the EC has been busily consulting industry groups, the public and international experts over the last few months. These consultations have thrown up the areas that are a major challenge to the adoption of clouds in Europe, such as worries about vendor lock-in, gatekeeping access to the data and making sure data is secure. From the new strategy, which will be launched later in 2012, will come three pillars supporting a cloud for Europe:  a cloud friendly legal framework, a cloud active public sector and global solutions governed by international policy.
 
There is a lot at stake. Gabriella Cattaneo of IDC EMEA told us that some 80% of new apps target the cloud and the ‘digital universe’ has grown 48% since 2011 to a difficult-to-imagine 2.7 zettabytes of data (apparently if all human speech ever spoken was recorded it would take up 42 ZB). The ICT industry itself is expected to reach 5 trillion dollars by 2020, with current disruptive technologies like clouds and apps making up 80% of the market.
 
So what is stopping everyone from rushing to take advantage of this massive new market, particularly now some European countries are slipping into a double-dip recession? It seems that companies are putting a toe in the water by using the easy cloud services, but are stopping before things get too complicated. Micro-SMEs are not even going that far, and lag behind the rest, even though the associated cost savings of 10-20% would probably benefit them most of all. Uneven broadband access across Europe tells some of the story and take up is certainly biggest where the benefits are clearest. According to Cattaneo, the real barriers are uncertainty, complex regulation and the ever present lock-in fears. Consumers have similar concerns about security and costs… and also want to make sure that they have the right to delete accounts and be forgotten if they want to be (social media networks take note).
 
Lutz Schubert of HLRS Stuttgart presented the Cloud Report itself, which starts off with what at first glance seems like a deceptively easy question: what is a cloud? The answer apparently depends on who you happen to be – user, developer or provider. Everyone’s definition of a cloud has some key elements in common though, including being always available, with elastic resource utilisation and multi-tenancy services.
 
Schubert showed us some alarming graphs where the expected trend towards more users, more devices and  more storage leads to a substantial capability gap, not likely to be met by current progress in industry or in research. We need a paradigm shift in Europe to meet this opportunity, where business use of cloud goes beyond peak load balancing and utility computing to cover the entire business value chain, from original discovery to planning to negotiation and final operation. Keith Jeffery of STFC went on to outline a challengingly lengthy menu of areas for research funding – some prioritisation of this list is going to be needed for Horizon 2020 (I noticed a few EC people looking rather pale at this point). 
 
In summary, Jeffery picked out some recommendations from the report for the EC. These included focusing on concerns which have a long term relevance to cloud take up, enabling fast transitions to cloud, through sandboxes and pilots for example, plus encouraging the large scale European providers, as well as the SMEs that are agile enough offer the really innovative services. Open source solutions are on the wish list, as are extendable standards that provide a framework for development and collaboration – but not a straight jacket. 
 
So as I dash to catch the train back to the rain clouds of Amsterdam, the debate continues – you can email the authors of the report with comments until 4th June, or even better, contribute to the discussions on the Digital Agenda Assembly website at http://daa.ec.europa.eu/.

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