Condensation Computing

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.


  1. fche said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 9:08 am

    I hope that your zembuish vision comes true, because I like the self-empowerment that comes from it. I fear the “everything in the cloud” scenario because of the end-user mentality that welcomes the loss of control / ownership / responsibility. I suspect that some big privacy disasters will make complacent freebie-dependent folks perk up and drag their data and expertise back in house again.

  2. mdoar said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 9:26 am

    Most of us never back up the data on our laptop. That’s what I think is the driving force for cloud services – let someone else do the work for us (free or not). So long as I have access to a network, the current paradigm will persist. I don’t see the current communications infrastructure shrinking either.

    If I want to keep something private, I just don’t put it in the cloud. Mind you, if it’s really private don’t put it on a network-connected machine at all.

  3. Pierre Phaneuf said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 2:16 pm

    I started writing a comment, but it became kind of long and decided it’d be interesting enough to put as a Buzz:

  4. Joel Brobecker said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 10:48 am

    I have also been wondering more and more about the cloud model. For practical reasons, I really appreciate using the Google calendar as a way to have access to my calendar where ever I am, regardless of the device I use. Be it my laptop, someone else’s laptop, or most of all, my Android phone. I am midly concerned at the possibility that one might somehow get access to this information which is private, but this is only my own data, it only affects me, and the consequences of having it pirated seem small to me. To be fair, I am more afraid of Google simply closing my account than anything else!

    But at the same time, I have to wonder about the possibility of trusting an entity with some information that affects people other than me: For instance, is it really OK to store our contact information somewhere in the cloud? What if that information gets pirated – what are our friends or professional contacts think?

    I think it’s OK to a certain degree to store information in the cloud. This is particularly obvious when the information is destined to be shared (photos, news, etc). I make an exception with my Calendar because it’s convenient. But for the rest, I’m still holding on to my data.

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