Eric Boyce is a technical writer and user advocate for The Rackspace Cloud.
The past 25 years have brought a digital age of Internet, massive computing power, high-speed data transmission, mobile communication, and more recently, the cloud, which brings it all together. Over the next 25 years, as technology advances and infrastructure increases, cloud computing will continue to change our world.
According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, about 70% of Americans will be using cloud-based applications as their primary tools by 2020—both at work and in their free time. It’s already happening, of course—people accessing cloud-based applications like email and social media from their smart phones, streaming movies from Netflix®, and hosting their family pictures online—but just imagine what is on the horizon.
1. The Internet is everywhere. Really.
The true potential of the cloud will only be realized with universal, high-speed, broadband Internet. We are getting there. Airlines are adding satellite based wi-fi to flights. Downtown areas across the country are wired with hotspots. But speed is the real roadblock.
Median access speeds in a few countries are as high as 50 Mbps (2-5 Mbps in the U.S.), but the cloud possibilities for healthcare, education, entertainment, and entrepreneurship will bring a demand for improved infrastructure. Over the next quarter century, deregulation and technology advances could bring 100+ Mbps service to almost everywhere that can receive a radio signal.
2. No more software updates.
Tired of chasing the latest version of Microsoft Word or Adobe Reader? Then maybe you’d welcome all software living on the Internet, on cloud-based servers. Whether you’re checking your email at work or adding to a spreadsheet in a taxi, the Google Docs trend will continue—software as a service (SaaS) will provide business applications and a repository of documents sitting far from our laptops. The IDC recently predicted that SaaS revenue will grow 5 times faster than traditional software such that soon, a third of all software will be delivered over the web. Imagine what things will be like in 25.
3. Hardware optional.
If most software is taken off the computer then surely data is also in the running. As cloud-based storage becomes the norm, people will no longer buy bigger and more robust hard drives to store all their videos, files, and music. Is buying a 1 terabyte external hard drive really the best way to protect your data? Probably not.
Eventually all data will live on the Internet—with full security and backups, of course. So, wait, what’s left of the PC or Mac if you take out the storage space and RAM for large software applications? It becomes simply an interface to interact with the cloud. So any screen, keyboard, or brain wave reader will suffice.
4. Games, baby!
And with the hardware gone, there is no limit to the entertainment possibilities. Upgrading expensive video cards, RAM, or even whole machines to play the latest games will be ancient history. Services like OnLive® have opened the door to this wonderland, and the next couple of decades will bring mobile 3D games and virtual reality to occupy the kiddies on long trips.
5. New medical treatments.
The promise of the cloud isn’t just about gaming and the ability to safely store all those photos that you wish you hadn’t ever taken. Many of the most promising cloud-based applications also require massive computational power. Searching a database of global DNA samples requires abundant, scalable processing power. Modeling protein folding is another example of how compute resources will be used.
Protein folding is linked to many diseases including Alzheimer’s and cancer, and analyzing the folding process can lead to new treatments and cures, but it requires enormous compute power. Projects like Folding@home are using distributed computing to tackle these modeling tasks. The cloud will offer a larger, faster, more scalable way to process data and thus benefit any heavy data manipulation task.
6. Is it going to be hot tomorrow?
Like protein folding modeling, climate simulation and forecasting requires a large amount of data storage and processing. Recently the German Climate Computing Center (DKRZ) installed a climate calculating supercomputer that is capable of analyzing 60 petabytes of data (roughly 13 million DVD’s) at over 158 teraflops (trillion calculations per second).
In the next couple of decades, this level of computing power will be widely available and will exist on remote hardware. Sophisticated climate models combined with never before seen compute power will provide better predictions of climate change and more rapid early warning systems.
7. Education for the world.
A few years ago, MIT created a site called MITOpenCourseware to offer course lecture videos and notes online, free for everyone. It had great promise and hype, but it does not offer the texts or materials that are needed to truly learn a subject. The costs of education have skyrocketed, and recently, student loan debt has surpassed credit card debt in America. There is no need for the antiquated system of higher education to continue in the digital information age.
All of the materials and recorded lectures to get you from Freshman to PhD could easily be stored and accessed on the cloud for less than the cost of a single textbook. These resources will become more available and will make education an inexpensive global commodity. Want to learn to be a computer engineer? There will be a website for that.
8. Space, the final frontier.
Space is big. Really big. And the data that we collect about space is really big. According to Computerworld, once active, the Square Kilometre Array, a multinational radio telescope project, is expected to generate an exabyte of data every day, that’s more than the daily global Internet traffic, and we know how many times Justin Beiber videos get watched!
Seeing the potential, NASA recently launched Nebula, a cloud computing service built on open source technology that provides computing and storage resources to NASA’s research community, and the agency has been a key contributor to Open Stack(TM), an open source cloud project with broad industry support.
9. No more wallets! No more purses!
Mobile devices and the cloud have helped to replace many of the bits of paper that you used to carry around in your back pocket. Contacts and appointments don’t need to be kept in a stack of napkins and Post-it® notes. Your smart phone can access it all, along with pictures of the kids and your vacation. The cloud will complete the replacement of the wallet.
A company called CardStar™ already offers a service that stores customer loyalty discount cards for stores like CVS and Best Buy®, just have the cashier scan your iPhone. In the future, you will be able to pull up your credit/debit card, electronic business cards, and your driver’s license, all viewable and scannable from your mobile device. However, the makeup dispenser add-on may be another 25 years.
10. Read my lips: no more paper tickets.
We all know people who’ve disavowed paper, maybe even thrown out their laser printer. As airlines continue to allow iPhone bar code scans for boarding passes, and mobile ticketing becomes the norm, this trend will have us waxing nostalgic about when we used to get rock concert tickets in the mail. A paperless society will continue to evolve in the cloud beyond downloading books to your iPad™. With the help of apps like EchoSign™, electronic contracts, security documents, tax forms, everything will be stored and transacted in a secure cloud.
11. No more cart rage in the grocery store.
Does anyone like going to the grocery store to battle it out on a Sunday night? What if you could just drag-n-drop your groceries into your cart from virtual shelves on your iPad and then wait for the delivery? Some businesses have made Internet-based grocery shopping a reality, but it’s still in its infancy. Soon we will see delivery or pick-up services available locally as well as through the mail. Look out for a revolution in the way we buy food.
12. Where am I?
How will location services affect the future of the cloud and handheld technology? Foursquare™, a location based social networking site—just raised $20 million in venture capital. So location services must be hot! The site helps people explore their city by seeing what their friends are doing—and where exactly they are—at any moment. Location services will continue to evolve through the cloud, from tracking your children to helping emergency services find you in the event of an accident.
13. Digital media—movies, music, books, magazines.
The coming cloud will be fertile ground for independent artists and content entrepreneurs. The biggest current providers are rather restrictive and media access is often proprietary. As competition grows, an open market for global creativity will flourish.
The beginnings are happening now with companies like Jingle Punks, which has revolutionized the music licensing model. But established artists and catalogs of content will benefit too as larger and larger libraries become easily accessible. Soon, one fee will give you access to every movie, every song, every book, every magazine ever made, with new content added every minute. The days of getting DVDs in the mail or lining up at the Red Box seem numbered.
14. Saving lives with the cloud.
Okay, that sounds a little melodramatic. But medical records are fast coming onto the cloud. In the future our medical records will be secured in a single, digital repository that resides on the cloud. Say you need to see a doctor while on vacation in London, with a few clicks and authentication, everything from your X-rays to blood test results will appear. Home testing services, like 23andMe, already let you check for DNA predisposition to diseases. More such services are already here or rapidly on the way: blood analysis, paternity testing, and even remote diagnosis.
15. Criminals beware.
As we have seen, massive data storage and computing power are the promises of the cloud. This will not be a good thing for those who break the law. Before police even pull over a car, the license plate will be scanned. No matter what state the car is from, vehicle and owner details including driver’s license, insurance status, and complete criminal history will be displayed instantly. Records of all types will no longer be tied to specific agencies and local resources. Fingerprint and DNA records will be accessible globally, and search results will take minutes instead of days.
16. Where is all that oil going?
Researchers at the University of Texas are using a supercomputer to model in 3-D the movements of the recent Gulf oil spill. Cloud computing will expand the available resources for such projects. We will be able to respond to and recover from both man-made and natural disasters faster than ever before.
17. Monte Carlo? The city in Monaco or the car?
No, we’re talking about Monte Carlo simulation methods. Monte Carlo experiments are data analysis models that include random factors. They have been effectively used for applications involving business risk, economic trends, artificial intelligence, and chemistry. As on-demand computational power becomes widely available, Monte Carlo simulations will be used to make decisions on everything from company startups to telecommunication networks.
18. Search and Rescue.
As mentioned above, with the advances in location services, emergency teams will be able to locate you more easily if you get in trouble. But what if you are in the boonies or sailing around the world? There are currently emergency beacons that send a signal to satellites to alert authorities of your location, but if you don’t have one of these devices, imagery may save your life.
Satellite and aerial imagery can be analyzed by volunteers to find a plane crash or missing boat, but this analysis can be partially automated and will be speeded up with cloud resources. We will be able to find a 40 footer in the South Pacific in minutes or hours, not weeks.
19. I think I’ll start my own business.
The cloud can make anyone an entrepreneur, and it will. The cloud simplifies the IT problems of any startup, whether it be a new web app or a new real estate office, but it also brings entrepreneurship into the home or a teenager’s basement. If you have a skill, perhaps dog grooming, you can film it, and put it on YouTube™. If enough people view it, you may be offered a partnership and get a portion of the advertising revenue.
These opportunities will be endless. Whether you are an artist, blogger, or want to sell your knitted footies, you can market to the world. This will continue to grow, and it will help our economy and developing countries more than any stimulus package.
20. Warfare and Big Brother.
Defense and national security are moving into the cloud. From the Cloud Computing Journal, the Defense Information Service Agency (DISA) has implemented cloud based infrastructure for defense agencies. Moving to a cloud based model will reduce defense support costs by millions of dollars. Last year, the National Security Agency (NSA) moved into a geographically distributed cloud to allow sharing, search, and analysis of intelligence data. The locations include Omaha, Texas, San Francisco, and the North Pole. According to an NSA spokesman, the on-demand scalability of the cloud will allow cooperation and advanced recording operations. In the next 20 years, defense, security, and government as a whole will be working off of cloud based architecture.
21. Served up just for you.
For quite some time, ASP and similar tools have allowed content providers to serve web content customized for each customer. The future will take this way beyond MyYahoo!®. News, magazine articles, music catalogs, movie lists, all content will be customized and delivered in a style and format specific to each individual. Companies like Flipboard will replace the newsstand and even online magazines. Aggregators will gather your specific content and deliver it without you needing to do a thing.
22. I wish I had turned off my AC.
The cloud will make smart grid technologies ubiquitous. Smart grid technologies allow two-way transmission for electricity delivery. With sensing and metering built in, it allows control (including remote shut-off) and tracking of appliances to cut costs and save energy. With the ability to respond more efficiently to supply and demand, the smart grid may allow us to have energy resources for 25 more years.
23. Speaking of grids . . .
Gridlock has become the norm in every urbanized area. Traffic and alternative transportation modeling is essential as we plan and improve our travel networks. We are headed for a major overhaul of our transportation systems. The current systems simply cannot support more vehicles. The cloud will be there to solve these problems. However, we should still be skeptical if the simulations suggest roundabouts for efficiency.
24. A viable standard of living for all.
Online peer-to-peer lending has been around for a while thanks to sites like Prosper®. But as technology and Internet access spreads, microfinance organizations will expand further internationally offering sound, secure financial services to all in the form of loans, savings, investments, and insurance. The cloud will be used to establish and track these services, and it will bring prosperity to the many.
25. Oh, and we will all be driving flying cars!
You simply can’t write about the future without throwing in flying cars. However, with the difficulty we have with roundabouts, it is unlikely we will ever have flying cars. But, on the bright side, the cars we have are going to get really cool. Cloud based apps are being developed that let fellow drivers share map routes, restaurant suggestions, and road hazard information. Or maybe you would like to calculate and share your fuel economy stats and compete with others.
These services will be available shortly, but the next quarter of a century will see the cloud providing movies for the kids to watch in the back seat, instant traffic reports, and it may even be driving the car for us.