Late last week I attended an event sponsored by IBM/Lotus and Technology Review. A very credible "End of the U.S." doomsday scenario tied to the public cloud was outlined that I believe warrants further thought.Charles Burns, who I used to work with at Giga Information Group and now works at Saugatuck Technology, was the one who brought this subject up. Be aware: In the following discussion, I'm talking about something that is in the future -- not a risk that currently exists -- but one we still need to plan for. The Cloud's Expected Growth The concept of the cloud is amorphous at the moment, but it is basically a flexible hosting model in which applications and storage flow freely to meet performance requirements while optimizing on cost. Its potential to reduce complexity and cost long term is massive, but it is currently being held back in terms of adoption by three factors: concerns surrounding any major change, a lack of critical cross-vendor standards, and the technology's immaturity.
Customer pressure is expected to eventually correct the standards problem, though that could take five to 10 years -- a sentiment echoed at the event by IBM Software VP Sean Poulley. During that time period, IT is likely to experience a massive influx of younger talent as the market improves and organizations staff up. These new employees will have come up during the Google years, and will be much more comfortable with the cloud concept. The Public Cloud: Building the Next Terror Target As we have seen in the past with other technologies, while cloud resources will likely start out decentralized, as time goes by and economies of scale take hold, they will start to collect into mega-technology hubs. These hubs could, as the end of this cycle, number in the low single digits and carry most of the commerce and data for a nation like ours. Elsewhere, particularly in Europe, those hubs could handle several nations' public and private data.
And therein lays the risk.
The Twin Towers, which were destroyed in the 9/11 attack, took down a major portion of the U.S. infrastructure at the same time. The capability and coverage of cloud-based mega-hubs would easily dwarf hundreds of Twin Tower-like operations. Although some redundancy would likely exist -- hopefully located in places safe from disasters -- should a hub be destroyed, it could likely take down a significant portion of the country it supported at the same time. Taking it one step further, a coordinated attack on several or all of the hubs could stop a country -- even one the size of the U.S. -- cold, with recovery taking years and massive infrastructure failures causing loss of life and resources at levels never seen outside of an outright world war.
This suggests that the security threat must be factored in as new facilities are built, in terms of their design, location, and physical protection. Each hub may represent a target more attractive to terrorists than today's favored nuclear power plants. In fact, with the ramp-up of alternative energy sources also in the next five to 10 years, the power grid, itself, could be at risk if the control programs that will likely be handled in the cloud were taken down. Wrapping Up Short-term, the cloud offers some economic advantages that will be hard to ignore. But if the growth of this opportunity follows the expected path, then the resulting risk could dwarf anything we have likely seen before. This means the risk must be thoroughly thought through -- particularly how to mitigate it at the front end, as opposed to the more normal post-disaster approach.
-- Rob Enderle is president and founder of Enderle Group. Special to Dark Reading.