The Quantum Pontiff

Today Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer spoke at the University of Washington in the Microsoft Atrium of the Computer Science & Engineering department’s Paul Allen Center. As you can tell from that first sentence UW and Microsoft have long had very tight connections. Indeed, perhaps the smartest thing the UW has ever done was, when they caught two kids using their computers they didn’t call the police, but instead ended up giving them access to those computers. I like to think that all the benefit$ that UW has gotten from Microsoft are a great big karmic kickback for the enlightened sense of justice dished out by the UW.

Todd Bishop from Tech Flash provides good notes on what was in Ballmer’s talk. Ballmer was as I’ve heard: entertaining and loud. Our atrium is six stories high with walkways overlooking it which were all packed: “a hanging room only” crowd as it was called by Ballmer. The subject of his talk was “cloud computing” which makes about 25 percent of people roll their eyes, 25 percent get excited, and the remaining 50 percent look up in the sky and wonder where the computer is. His view was *ahem* the view of cloud computing from a high altitude: what it can be, could be, and should be. Microsoft, Ballmer claimed, has 70 percent of its 40K+ workforce somehow involved in the cloud and that number will reach 90 percent soon. This seems crazy high to me, but reading between the lines what it really said to me is that Microsoft has *ahem* inhaled the cloud and is pushing hard on the model of cloud computing.

But what I found most interesting was the contrast between Ballmer and Larry Ellison. If you haven’t seen Ellison’s rant on cloud computing here it is

Ellison belittles cloud computing, and rightly points out that in some sense cloud computing has been around for a long time. Ballmer, in his talk, says nearly the same thing. Paraphrasing he said something like “you could call the original internet back in 1969 the cloud.” He also said something to the effect that the word “cloud” may only have a short lifespan as a word describing this new technology. But what I found interesting was that Ballmer, while acknowledging the limits of the idea of cloud computing, also argued for a much more expansive view of this model. Indeed as opposed to Ellison, for which server farms equal cloud computing, Ballmer essentially argues for a version of “cloud computing” which is far broader than any definition you’ll find on wikipedia. What I love about this is that it is, in some ways, a great trick to create a brand out of cloud computing. Sure tech wags everywhere have their view of what is and is not new in the recent round of excitement about cloud computing. But the public doesn’t have any idea what this means. Love them or hate them, Microsoft clearly is pushing to move the “cloud” into an idea that consumers, while not understand one iota of how it works, want. Because everything Ballmer described, every technology they demoed, was “from the cloud”, Microsoft is pushing, essentially, a branding of the cloud. (Start snark. The scientist in you will, of course, revolt at such an idea, but fear not fellow scientist: you’re lack of ability to live with imprecision and incompleteness is what keeps your little area of expertise safe and sound and completely fire walled from being exploited to the useful outside world. End snark.)

So, while Ellison berates, Ballmer brands. Personally I suspect Ballmer’s got a better approach…even if Larry’s got the bigger yacht. But it will fun to watch the race, no matter what.

Comments

  1. #1 Ethan Siegel
    March 4, 2010

    Interesting topic, and an interesting analysis of what to expect. Too bad UW is so far from me right now.

    And, FYI, it’s Ballmer, not Balmer.

  2. #2 Dave Bacon
    March 4, 2010

    Doh. Fixed.

  3. #3 Chris Granade
    March 4, 2010

    The trouble is that no matter which approach wins out, it’s bad for the consumer and bad for society. Given the appalling lack of concern for ethics that Microsoft has shown, handing them such unfettered access to the infrastructure of society can’t be a good idea. I won’t deny that Ballmer probably has the better approach from a business perspective, but that doesn’t mean we should go along with it.

  4. #4 Dave Bacon
    March 4, 2010

    You only get to say that Chris if you have a better solution :)

  5. #5 Joseph
    March 5, 2010

    Cloud computing *can* be good, but it can also be very, very bad. Depends on how you do it and how vigilant you are. Applications that you completely control, e.g. condor or virtualized machines are great, and can provide good on-demand computing power (and particularly in the case of condor, without needing new hardware). But where your computing infrastructure is locked up under the control of a vendor (or even a set of vendors) your data is no longer under your control anymore, and you’re now reliant upon that/those vendor/s for your ability to continue working (doubly so for Microsoft, who has a habit of throwing their weight around to the detriment of competitors and therefore indirectly to us users)

    http://autonomo.us/2008/07/franklin-street-statement/

  6. #7 yogi-one
    March 5, 2010

    (member of the non-scientist public here):

    So for me, I get to decide whether I like the new buzz word – cloud computing. No doubt the MS sales force will inform me of exactly what it is and why I should love it. No dount actual unix-loving geeks like my brother will explain to me in great detail (which I can’t understand with no background in computer science) the problems with cloud-computing and why Ballmer is promoting it so hard.

    Since I live in the Seattle area, we’ll probably get a healthy dose of cloudy love here (we’re already getting it in fact). I like clear skies myself, but hey this is the Pacific Northwest coast. Clouds are suppose to be good.

    What troubles me is if they put the computer in a cloud over Chinese airspace. hahaha.

  7. #8 Dave Bacon
    March 5, 2010

    @Joseph,

    Thanks for the link to the Franklin Street statement. I think you do a good job explaining the worry about cloud computing. I do wonder, however, why everything you say about this can’t also be said about pretty much the entire infrastructure of the internet and servers. I mean, do I feel more or less secure that my data is housed by Google versus some joe shmo who set up a server farm all by himself, or even a joe shmo who had someone else set it up but who has enough control to make it insecure. It will be interesting to see how consumers, who after all are what are going to drive this, react. It will be especially interesting to watch the divide across countries, as privacy perceptions seem to vary widely around the world.

    @Chris,

    What I was trying to say is that at some point every cloud instantiation I know about has to trust someone. Microsoft, Google, Sun, Salesforce, etc. Even the open source cloud stuff mostly works on systems like Amazons EC2. And it seems to me that each of these companies itself has “ethics” issues: they would all bury their competition in a second if they could. I’m sure we could go on all day about this, in the fine tradition of internet forums, but let’s just say I think the idea that Microsoft is evil and everyone else isn’t just as evil doesn’t stand up to a close reading of the history of the tech industry (and I’d also add the evil done by said industry, on a scale of the good created, gives me pause to even worry about this. But that’s cus I’m an elitist pig :) )

  8. #9 Joseph
    March 5, 2010

    “I do wonder, however, why everything you say about this can’t also be said about pretty much the entire infrastructure of the internet and servers.”

    Aside from most of the protocols used to interface between systems (TCP/IP, UDP/IP, HTTP, etc.), it can be, to some extent. The nice thing about the email example you present is that you can transfer and archive email and set up forwarding to another provider, due to the fact that the technologies upon which you’re reliant–SMTP+SSL, POP/IMAP, and HTTP/HTML are Free (both in terms of the specification being open as well as with regard to patents). You already have similar problems with proprietary and/or patent-encumbered file formats. Often times, unless you use the right vendor (and even the right version of their software!) you cannot access your data and data others send you without buying that vendor’s software.

    The situation is perhaps becoming less free as time goes on, e.g. how easy would it be to change from Facebook to another social networking site? Could you just pack up and leave? Additionally, there’s little incentive to change due to the value inherent in having you locked in and due to the fact that customers are used to being penned in. On one hand, you may or may not be paying the provider (here, Facebook) directly, but your information is valuable to them for advertising (well, in this case it’s Microsoft; they do Facebook’s advertising; in the Google case, their lock-in is the extended features that aren’t covered by the Free specifications). The problem is compounded by the fact that you don’t actually possess your data anymore. You must get the vendor to give you your data in addition to the previous requirements of having the ability to read the file that they give you.

    This doesn’t even begin to cover the programming side of things. When you control the files and interfaces, you can control the API and protocols. If the servers are all controlled by someone else, they can change them as set forth in your service contract (so here you have to weigh your ability to negotiate the terms with their; for general consumers vs Google and especially Microsoft is a very one-sided deal, and therefore they will likely be able to change the access very easily) and therefore they can dictate how you access your files more directly than they can now.

    This is why Free standards are of such critical importance in the past (when talking to servers was mostly the realm of corporate policy) and now (when talking to servers is critically important to everybody). This is also why there’s the Affero General Public License to deal with the realities of who the “user” is in a server-centric world.

  9. #10 Dave Bacon
    March 5, 2010

    @Joseph,

    Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I like it! I think your argument for why one should support open standards is spot on. And in a perfect word open standards would win out, but I wonder if this won’t be a rehash of PC OSes. Suppose one of the vendors can provide an extra umph that gives them a one-up over other vendors. Even in a world with open standards, I would think they would be reluctant to share, and if the extra umph was enough to differentiate their service, then people using their cloud would be drawn in. In other words it’s not clear to me why this time around it won’t be another winner takes all (okay well a few winners take all :))

    This is one thing I’ve just not understood about the open-source movement, whose high morals are certainly to be admired: how does such a movement avoid innovators following the monetary incentives with keeping their improvements locked in and eventually creating closed systems. I mean as liberal hippy science dude, I totally sympathize with the spirit, but just don’t see how to get there from here.

    This is usually what gets me in trouble when I talk to my open source friends (okay as a former Literature major I must comment that the phrase “open source friends” is an odd one.)

  10. #11 Chris Granade
    March 5, 2010

    @Dave: I understand where you’re coming from, and it’s the very realization that some sort of centralized trust is inherent in the model which informs and motivates many of the criticisms of cloud computing. As for myself, I do think that Microsoft is uniquely bad amongst tech companies as far as ethics goes. What GrokLaw documented about the Massachusetts and ISO standardization processes, for instance, was truly sickening to a level that is seldom seen even in corporate America. Of course, I don’t deny that Microsoft and its executives have done a lot of good in the world, but I don’t think that comes to bear when discussing how the company would behave with technologies like Azure.

  11. #12 Joseph
    March 5, 2010

    “As for myself, I do think that Microsoft is uniquely bad amongst tech companies as far as ethics goes.”

    I don’t; I think they’re unique only in the unparalleled ability to manipulate. Others would do it in their place, but are held back because they’re not of sufficient size and influence.

  12. #13 Joseph
    March 5, 2010

    “And in a perfect word open standards would win out, but I wonder if this won’t be a rehash of PC OSes”

    It may well be. I’d argue that it depends almost entirely on how much influence any one vendor can buy or exert in the marketplace (and, as a corollary, how much (and to what extent) the customers are willing to act as fully-informed and thoughtful users and not just as consumers).

    “Suppose one of the vendors can provide an extra umph that gives them a one-up over other vendors.”

    Note that decisive “extra umph” may not necessarily be technological (though the sales brochures and advocate postings will of course claim there is ;) It’s unfortunate that the belief that the capitalist system is a meritocracy is as widespread as it is. Certainly, on one level it is, but there are so many other, non-merit factors in play.

    “Even in a world with open standards, I would think they would be reluctant to share, and if the extra umph was enough to differentiate their service, then people using their cloud would be drawn in.”

    Of course businesses (and to a lesser extent (via prestige and influence rather than that plus money) non-business entities) are going to be reluctant to give up their lock-in and influence. The supply side is always going to demand as much as it can, and it’s incumbent upon the demand side to, well, demand their share. :)

    Additionally, it’s clear that they’re going to add additional value to their offering in comparison with their competitors, in order to draw money and influence. The benefit of demanding Free standards and particularly Free Software is that they get their edge for a time, and then everybody benefits when those changes are incorporated in other projects because it’s Free (this is the core idea behind patents, although the {A,}GPL doesn’t grant an artificial semi-limited monopoly on the idea; rather, it relies on the natural limitations on advantage and protects the rights of the independent innovator)

    “how does such a movement avoid innovators following the monetary incentives with keeping their improvements locked in and eventually creating closed systems.”

    “Open source” cannot. Licenses such as the BSD license allow the downstream users to close the source and enhance it without releasing the changes back. The GNU General Public License (GPL), on the other hand, is intended to maximize end-user freedom at the cost of a little of the developers/distributors freedom, namely the freedom to close the source (and any enhancements they’ve made). There are three flavors of GPL: Lesser/Library, GNU, and Affero. The Lesser (or Library) GPL doesn’t require the hosting application to be LGPLed (so it’s great for protecting the integrity of a library from later closure and restriction but not the application using it). The GPL, on the other hand, is essentially the LGPL but with the requirement that programs that use GPL-licensed code must also be GPL. These have, up until the last few years, provided pretty good protection. However, the lack of explicit patent language and web services / software-as-a-service (cloud computing subtypes?) have shown that it doesn’t provide all of the intended protection. Therefore, the third version of the GPL and LGPL were made, and the Affero GPL was introduced. The AGPL is for use in web service / cloud computing scenarios where the end-user never actually receives the program (and therefore the GPL has no effect; it only covers distribution to end-users; AGPL adds web app / cloud as distribution).

    Also because of the focus on distribution, the GPL makes an intentional choice to allow end-users total freedom. They can choose to release or not release the source and any modifications they make–as long as it’s not distributed outside the organization. The end-user has total freedom (the GPL is explicitly not an end-user license; only for distribution!)

    There are other Free Software licenses (including one by Microsoft!) but the GPL variants are the best known (and most frequently misunderstood; reading the GPL FAQ is highly recommended: http://www.gnu.org/licenses/gpl-faq.html)

  13. #14 Joseph
    March 5, 2010

    (hope this helps some. Perhaps over a coffee or beer next time I’m in the area is called for. That’s the ideal place to do it. :)

  14. #15 Joseph
    March 5, 2010

    (I could also be a pie-in-the-sky hippie. Unlikely, given my background, but you never know ;)

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