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More Clouds

There is a lot of rather vacuous talk about “the cloud”. Yes, there are plenty of clever things that can be done using communications and data resources at distant locations. But you'll no more find them in a cloud than you'll find Father Christmas at the North Pole.

Reality is actually a lot more interesting. Dealing with the technology that makes “the cloud” possible is a challenge, but one that offers huge potential. Even though, as an IT specialist, I am often consuming systems that I understand in some detail, the results can still be impressive. At home, I can monitor the status of office routers using a smart phone connected to home WiFi. The communications take a round trip of 500 miles, despite the office being only 100 yards from my home.

Web sites can pull things together from different continents. Some of my web sites are running in my own office, but they pull styling information and graphics from Amazon S3, which could involve servers at disparate locations spread around the world. Backup is sent to New York on a daily basis. Other web servers are running in Chicago, and there is little difference to be seen by the average user.

Demand for communication services is continuing to grow and will force very large investments. As always with IT, what seemed a vast resource is soon used up. Early enthusiasm saw optical fibre with huge capacity installed in the trunk network. So much so that many fibres were never lit, because advances in terminating equipment meant that they were not needed.

But what seemed ample communications capacity when the internet was first opened up to the world at large is being rapidly consumed, at the same time as demand for private circuits is growing fast. Web sites get more and more elaborate and email has been swamped by spam. Just as software seems able to outpace the performance gains of processors, so use of communications capacity is liable to overrun any given level of capacity.

Across both internet and private circuits used by businesses, the common factor is reliance on ethernet. Carriers still have backbones that were designed to cope with digitized voice as much as data, and they are having to work hard to meet the demands. Businesses are looking for communications solutions that allow them to treat wide area networks as if they were a single, large LAN.

Companies like Cisco and Avaya are heavily involved in all of these areas and are both researching new solutions and pushing existing solutions at all levels.

Where consumers are involved, the bottle neck is inevitably the “last mile”, the circuit that takes data from the exchange to the consumer. So long as this is copper wire, increased bandwidth depends on the ability to find technical solutions that push ever more data. This is inevitably a process that has limitations, but a changeover to optical fibre would have huge costs, and in the foreseeable future there is little likelihood of funding from any quarter.