It’s a frequent observation that computing has oscillated between centralized and distributed. We’ve gone from centralized computing facilities (which were effectively single-user, but only the administrators could use them) to time-sharing to personal computers to server farms. Data has moved from the card deck you kept in your office to the tape deck at the computer center to the hard disk on your personal computer to the hard disk on a centralized server to a cloud site like Flickr. E-mail has moved from a mailbox on a timesharing system to your personal computer to a cloud site like GMail. People increasingly access data from their phones, but the data is stored in the cloud.
Right now we are clearly in a distributed trend. Data is increasingly stored in the cloud and accessed from a variety of devices. People shift from phones to laptops to desktops and expect to see the same list of contacts, the same e-mail, the same calendar. The cloud sites are an extreme version of centralization: millions of users store their data in the same place. What will the computing world look like when and if it oscillates back to a more distributed system?
One possibility is that people will increasingly acquire their own data storage which will be accessible over the net. They’ll keep small cheap redundant servers to hold their data. They’ll have one server at home and one at the office, and they will automatically sync up. Access will be very fast most of the time, and will be possible at over times. The servers will be updated automatically and so forth, and they will (somehow) be easy to administer. The advantage will be fast access to data most of the time and actual control over your data. If you want to delete something, it’s gone, and not available for resurrection.
That particular vision is easy for me to think of because it’s similar to our ideas when I co-founded a company, Zembu, back in 1998. I don’t know how compelling it is. I suspect that going back to a distributed environment will require some cost advantage, and I’m not sure I see that here. Much of cloud computing these days tends to be free, in the sense that advertising pays the bills. Few people will spend money to avoid ads. Few is more than zero, but it’s not enough to build a business on.
During any predominant paradigm it’s difficult to see what the next paradigm will be. History suggests that we will oscillate back, that the cloud will condense at some point. But history is not always right. It seems inherently unlikely to me that data will increasingly be centralized. But I don’t know what the alternative will look like.