EU gets to grips with cloud computing
05.04.11 @ 16:22
It is billed as being to this decade what the PCs were to the 1970s, a technological and societal leap that will change how businesses function, how cities are planned, how people carry out their work and what citizens expect from online services.
The idea of cloud computing - where data and IT services are hosted remotely, vastly increasing capacity and access - has been touted as the next big thing by industry for several years. According to market research company Gartner, Cloud computing is already a $68 billion global industry, and cloud adoption is expanding at roughly 17 percent a year.
Policy makers in the EU have now latched on to it too. Digital Agenda commissioner Neelie Kroes at the World Economic Forum Davos in January called for a cloud strategy in Europe saying the EU should not just be "cloud friendly" but "cloud active". In May she is to hold a consultation process with stakeholders to see how to develop it.
Cloud computing means that data can be stored anywhere and accessed from anywhere - no longer bound by the desktop computer or by local server capacity.
An oft-used example with direct implications for Europeans is e-health. A cloud could be used to store all the health data of an individual, including recent prescriptions, ailments, treatments, operations, allergies and blood type. The person's data would then be instantly accessible if they suddenly had to be treated abroad or if they moved house and registered with a different doctor.
Buying IT services as needed and without requiring the understanding of the technology behind it - the principle is similar to consuming electricity - is a game-changer for businesses and consumers.
"This is as big as going over to PCs in the seventies," John Vassallo, vice-president for European affairs at Microsoft, told EUobserver. He says one of the biggest advantages will be for businesses to tap into extra capacity as they need it, using more in peak times and downgrading off-season.
It is seen as particularly advantageous for smaller companies by allowing them access to computing resources that were previously only available to larger companies. This will spur innovation because the cost of failure will not be so high as the initial investment is negligible.
Many small companies are already using the technology.
A 'cows in the cloud' project by Dutch company Sparked allows farmers to keep a much closer eye on their herds. Sensors planted in the cow's ear wirelessly relay information about its vital signs. Gathering such information for a whole herd would be too much for a local server but is possible using cloud-based remote servers. Farmers like it because it gives greater insight into a herd's dietary behaviour as well as helping to prevent contagion if an animal gets sick.
EU-funded research project Venus-C, meanwhile, uses cloud computing to simulate how to respond to a wild fire such as those that have hit Greece and Portugal in recent summers. It makes predictions using weather forecasts, socioeconomic factors, topography and vegetation about where and how fast the fire will spread - complex calculations that can be realised quickly using the vast amounts of stored information.
Public administrations are also making the switch. The UK government last year announced its intention of creating its own internal cloud computing system. The local government in Spain's Catalonia has 140,000 civil servants accessing the cloud while Belgium prepared its sixth-month EU presidency - including meeting, calendars and documents - using cloud computing.
It will also form the backbone of the 'internet of things' - a central part of the EU's digital agenda.
The internet of things is the name given to sensors and tags paired with wireless technology to transmit information about everything around us - including appliances, animals and objects. Taken to its natural conclusion, it should make it easier to dodge traffic jams, will make shoplifting all but impossible and could see ads around us change according to our own personal preferences. This vast mass of data can be stored in clouds.
However the uptake of cloud will depend on trust by users, ensuring proper data protection and well as jurisdiction issues, when a company in one country has information stored in another.
"Adoption of broadband and the cloud – by both consumers and businesses - will be inhibited to the extent there is a lack of trust; it's reasonable to expect that consumers and businesses will require a high level of confidence before they place sensitive financial or medical information in the cloud," Julius Genachowski, Chairman of the US Federal Communications Commission, said in March.
Microsoft's Vassallo agrees and is urging the EU's regulators to hurry up to create a secure legal framework to make it easier to establish cross-border cloud services. "The legal framework is too fragmented, he said referring to the data privacy directive of 1995 currently up for review in the commission. "it is applied differently in all member states. You don't know which law applies to you when you are selling data."
There are also the practical issues of making sure that it is easy to be able to change cloud providers - the commission wants it to be as easy has changing your mobile phone provider - and, most fundamentally, of ensuring wider broadband penetration than is currently the case in the EU.
But industry can at least be sure that Kroes is behind cloud technology. Not only did the commissioner attend a recent opening of Microsoft's cloud centre in Brussels, she also whipped out her lipstick to scribble a two-letter endorsement. The sign on the speaker's podium subsequently read: 'Microsoft cloud EU operability centre opening'.