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Cloud computing at the cutting edge of research in Europe

The report cover. Image courtesy of Catherine Gater.

Storm clouds are often used to symbolize unpleasantness looming on the horizon, likely due to our memories of torrential downpours, cold winds, and floods. But attendees at the Research in Future Cloud Computing meeting, which took place in Brussels in early May 2012, had the opportunity to focus on a less 'anti-social' variety of cloud through a preview of a new expert group report: 'Advances in Clouds.'

The report builds on a cloud-gazing study published in January 2011, which looked at opportunities for Europe in the then much-hyped cloud computing arena. More than a year on, the new report considers the current, fast-moving reality of cloud research today, and identifies areas where Europe - if supported strategically through the European Commission's Horizon 2020- could become among the world's leaders.

Pillars that will enable European-wide cloud adoption

Ken Ducatel, head of unit of Digital Agenda Policy Coordination at the European Commission, reminded the audience of the consultations that have been underway since 2011 to feed into a new cloud strategy for Europe. Focusing on the areas of legal framework, technical issues and strategy, the EC has been busy consulting industry groups, the public, and international experts over the last few months. These consultations have addressed areas that are a major challenge to the adoption of clouds in Europe, such as worries about vendor lock-in, gatekeeping access to the data, and making sure data is secure.

Three pillars supporting a cloud for Europe arise from this new strategy, which will be launched in the second half of 2012: a cloud-friendly legal framework, a cloud-active public sector, and global solutions governed by international policy.

There is a lot at stake. Gabriella Cattaneo of IDC EMEA, which provides research on IT trends to governments, said that some 80% of new applications target the cloud and the 'digital universe' has grown 48% since 2011 to a difficult-to-imagine 2.7 zettabytes of data. (Apparently, if all human speech ever spoken was recorded it would take up 42 ZB). The ICT industry itself is expected to reach $5 trillion (€3.9 trillion) by 2020, with current 'disruptive' technologies like clouds and apps making up 80% of the market.

Barriers to innovation

The question is, what is stopping everyone from rushing to take advantage of this massive new market, particularly now that some European countries are slipping into a double-dip recession? It seems that companies are putting a toe in the water by using the easy cloud services, but are stopping before things get too complicated. Micro-small and medium enterprises are not even going that far, and lag behind the rest, even though the associated cost savings of 10-20% would probably benefit them most of all.

Uneven broadband access across Europe tells some of the story and adoption of cloud technology is certainly biggest where the benefits are clearest. According to Cattaneo, the real barriers are uncertainty, complex regulation, and the ever present lock-in fears. Consumers have similar concerns about security and costs and also want to make sure that they have the right to delete accounts and be forgotten if they want to be (take note, social media networks!).

The recommendations

Lutz Schubert, of the High Performance Computing Center Stuttgart, in Germany, presented the cloud report itself, which starts off with what at first glance seems like a deceptively easy question: what is a cloud? The answer apparently depends on who you happen to be - user, developer, or provider. Everyone's definition of a cloud has some key elements in common though, including being always available, with elastic resource utilization and multi-tenancy services (the ability for multiple tenants or customers to share the same applications or resources ).

Schubert showed the audience some alarming graphs where the expected trend towards more users, more devices, and more storage leads to a substantial capability gap, not likely to be met by current progress in industry or in research. He said we need a paradigm shift in Europe to meet this opportunity, where business use of clouds goes beyond peak load balancing and utility computing to cover the entire business value chain. This includes original discovery to planning, negotiation, and final operation.

Keith Jeffery of the Science and Technology Facilities Council, in the UK, went on to outline a lengthy menu of challenging areas for research funding; some prioritization of this list is going to be needed for Horizon 2020.

In summary, Jeffery highlighted some of the recommendations from the report for the EC. These included focusing on concerns which have a long term relevance to cloud adoption, enabling fast transitions to cloud through, for example, testbeds and pilots, and encouraging European providers to offer the really innovative services. Open-source solutions are on the wish list, as are extendable standards that provide a framework for development and collaboration - without putting the technology and its users in a metaphorical strait jacket.

The debate continues. To have your say, email the authors of the report with comments until 4th June 2012, or (even better) contribute to the discussions on the Digital Agenda Assembly website.

A version of this story first appeared on GridCast.

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