The Invisible Infrastructure

E-mail Print PDF
AddThis Social Bookmark Button

The Invisible InfrastructureA hard, uncompromising look at EMC and its drive to make cloud computing the new way of doing business

EMC is best described as a quiet giant. From its main headquarters in the sleepy town of Hopkinton, Massachusetts, the multi-tentacled corporation maintains its status as a global provider of enterprise storage solutions.

The numbers speak for themselves: first quarter consolidated revenue this year is US$4.6 billion. EMC’s offices are found in 94 countries across six continents. Its most prized asset, Silicon Valley virtualization giant VMWare, was valuated at USid="mce_marker"0 billion on the eve of its initial public offering.

The cherry on top of these glowing figures is a premiere dot on the Gartner Magic Quadrant’s upper right ‘leaders’ corner, with longtime partner Dell and rival IBM a few millimeters below them. Of course, such an illustrious position is in the class of ‘Mid-Range and High-end Modular Disk Arrays’ that was mapped in November last year.

Just as the corporate news grapevine was reporting a succession crisis among EMC’s leadership, the top brass of the Asia-Pacific division were awaiting journalists at the Shangri-La Makati. Past the spacious hotel lobby ornamented by an enormous chandelier and flanked by wide staircases, left of the front desk, and a short elevator ride up, there stood a welcoming committee of EMC’s media relations representative Jason Chan and an attendant public relations officer. The venue was a secluded conference room, a bit dim but with a generous supply of coffee and buns.

It took a while before members of the media occupied most of the seats. At close to lunchtime, EMC president for Australia, New Zealand, and Southeast Asia David Webster presented himself in front of his audience and brought everyone’s attention to a short video clip. The short film was supposed to convey how the rapid expansion of data storage needs among businesses called for suitable infrastructure. The symbolism for this, rendered in computer-generated imagery, was a supercar speeding down an empty high-way. After zipping past different obstacles, it suddenly ground to a screeching halt, separated from its goal by a chasm.

As the lights went back on, the hush that prevailed among the journalists present was broken when among their number a colleague exclaimed, “But the car... it stopped!”

David Webster smiled and began to explain how a fast-changing world belonged to the cloud.

Clouds

Thanks to ubiquitous smartphones, rampant social networking, and the constant presence of enormous digital entities that generate huge traffic, computing as we know it has entered its next evolutionary plateau. As David Webster himself elaborates, amid the surging demand for storage space beyond the meager capacities of disk drives (expected to reach an incomprehensible 35 zettabytes by 2020), there now exists a practical means for storing data without the attendant strains on physical infrastructure and the payment for them. The answer is cloud computing, a once vague concept that came in vogue three years ago and has since become an all-consuming trend, a focus of perpetual coverage and general wonder.

But what is it?

Like all great concepts that transform everyday life, cloud computing is fast becoming difficult to explain in simple terms. There are, however, a few crucial aspects of the phenomenon that, when combined, could provide an acceptable understanding of what it is. Cloud computing is made possible by a loose infrastructure of connected devices. This means in a world where iPhones, tablets, desktop computers, and various shiny gadgets, the collective data produced is no longer saved in a conventional hard drive but stored in a ‘cloud’ that parcels out the bytes to virtual servers. Difficult to imagine? It already exists. Depending on who you ask, it has been around for well over a decade.

Pinpointing the cloud’s origins for the sake of perspective can prove equally difficult. At the core of cloud computing is the idea that the vast stream of information on the Internet be made a utility. By utility, we mean the essentials to modern living: water, electricity, and gas. As the wave of the future sweeps the world, information itself becomes a utility ever-present and ever flowing. Surprisingly, thanks to an old internal memo that has since gone viral, it seems transnational money transfer company Western Union first latched onto the idea of a ‘cloud.’ Dated 1965, the Western Union Strategic Plan sires an information utility by way of a drawn out preamble that states:

“What is now developing, very rapidly, is a critical need—as yet not fully perceived—for a new national information utility which can gather, store, process, program, retrieve, and distribute on the broadest possible scale, to industry; to the press; to military and civilian government; to the professions; to department stores, banks, transportation companies, and retailers; to educational institutions, hospitals, and other organizations in the field of public health, welfare, and safety...”

Thus, as far back as 1965, the scope and reach of an information utility was envisioned for an environment where computers (some 20,000 in operation at the time) were fast becoming an essential tool for business. Of course, Western Union’s grand ambition was somewhat trumped by the advent of IBM mainframes. To this day, the continued usefulness of large mainframes are still called into question by cloud partisans. As with every hotly contested issue, there exists a conciliatory middle-ground insisting that both old-school mainframes and the cloud could coexist in perfect harmony.

Yet tangible proof exists that cloud computing came to be in ignominious circumstances. According to a blogger who specializes in all things cloud, as early as the 1990s botnets—loose networks of infected computers funneling viruses and spam to other computers—already had features similar to today’s definition of cloud computing. The disturbing part is the specter of loose security botnets thrive in is among the biggest risks that threatens the cloud as a viable future for the Internet.

Casting such doubts aside, the cloud entered the mainstream thanks to three technology giants whose accumulated traffic created so much data they eventually decided to sell it. These are Google, Amazon, and Rackspace. Among the three, it was Amazon Web Services (AWS) that got the most media mileage and signaled to the rest of the tech world that cloud computing was hurtling toward the future in a big way. The exact moment when the age of the cloud began was in the days and weeks of April 2008.

Meanwhile...

The cumulative gist of David Webster’s presentation was that for a nation with a constantly connected consumer economy serviced by robust businesses, cloud computing is no longer the future but the present. Adapt or die. It’s cheaper anyway. Additionally, as a market leader with an untarnished track record, EMC is a key enabler for businesses to join the cloud computing era. After fielding several questions, Webster invited his audience to an extended lunch in an adjoining room where a selection of exoticized Filipino dishes were arrayed on a buffet table.

Having requested a seat next to David Webster, the lunchtime conversation drifted away from the technical stuff and settled on Manny Pacquiao and the vagaries of Philippine politics. An engineer by training, David Webster is a middle-aged 20-year veteran who has spent his entire working life around computers and mainframes. Unlike most executives, the soft-spoken Australian (his office is in Sydney) is not averse to mingling with the press and delivers a mini-lecture on the issue of information security upon this writer’s request. Security is, in fact, a hot button issue in the midst of the world’s great migration to the cloud as self-proclaimed experts, journalists, and hackers decry its vulnerability to nefarious designs and compromised passwords.

Halfway through the meal, country manager Ronnie Latinazo seats himself beside Webster. An IBM veteran who switched employers in 2000, Ronnie is the local face of EMC with a job description that includes promoting ‘storage-based information infrastructure solutions’ among the local tech press. Meanwhile, in an adjoining table CTO Par Botes is fielding questions. The heavy presence of EMC execs for the occasion was warranted by a conference ‘downstairs’—in the Rizal ballroom to be specific, where several hundred odd IT participants partook of keynote speeches, heavy duty networking and workshops until late at noon. The whole affair generally paving the way for the onset of cloud computing in earnest. The real weather might have been dreadful, but the guys at EMC had their hearts set on enabling a cross-section of telecommunication, finance, and social media enamored citizens and gamers to reach the cloud.

Print ed: 09/11

 

On Newsstands Now

DECEMBER 2014:
The Asian Consumer Goldmine

14-12