The roar of clouds

Ravana's son Indrajit stealthily attacking Rama's camp. The painting depicts a sequence of events and Indrajit is shown successively at four different places; first attacking from the clouds and binding Rama and his brother Lakshman with the deadly serpent arrow. Then he faces off against the monkeys who try to fight Indrajit by hurling boulders at him. Last he binds those monkeys with the same serpent arrows and then (not shown in the painting) Indrajit carries off Rama and Lakshman as prisoners to his kingdom in the nether world.

The roar of the clouds

Roopen Roy

When Ravana’s son was born, his cry resembled the roar of the clouds. Hence, he was named Meghanada. When he grew up, he challenged the gods and vanquished their king Indra. He twice defeated Rama. Before the third battle, Lakshman entered his temple with the help of Vibhishana and slew him while he was praying. Is technology imitating mythology?

The world of computing is one of cold logic. Suddenly we are witnessing a burst of passion and emotion. The trigger: cloud computing. The CEO of Oracle Larry Ellison has recently been quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying, “Cloud computing is like women's fashion. Maybe I'm an idiot, but I have no idea what anyone is talking about.”

Marc Benioff , the CEO of the, a pioneer of cloud, completely disagrees, “The foundation of cloud technology is multitenancy. In the same way that large urban office buildings house multiple discrete, secure tenants that share core services like plumbing, electricity and elevators, cloud services manage data and applications. It delivers more innovation at far lower cost and complexity.”

What is cloud computing in human language? Cloud computing converts software, infrastructure and platforms into services. It delivers common business applications online accessed from a web browser. The data and software reside on remote servers. Cloud is a metaphor for the internet and it can have many avatars. It could provide raw computing power on demand as Amazon’s model does. The well known example: New York Times used Amazon Web Services to generate PDF files of 11 million articles for its archives in less than 24 hours. It could take the shape of Microsoft’s Azure or Google’s AppEngine which are cloud platforms that obviate the need for acquiring new hardware and software to develop or run applications. It also could take the form of Benioff claims that “it allows developers to achieve results five times faster and at half the cost of traditional platforms”.

Benioff narrates a great story about the deployment of cloud technology in a unique initiative. About one month before President Barack Obama’s inauguration, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz came up with a bright idea. To encourage local volunteer work for charity he pledged a free cup of Starbucks coffee for a pledge of 5 hours work for local charity. There was a problem. How could he get the application up and running within 3 weeks and scale it without causing a collapse of Starbuck’s existing IT infrastructure? He went to and created a site called Pledge 5. He secured pledges for more than 1.3 million hours of volunteer work and Schultz appeared on the Oprah show just in time. Not a bad deal.

Cloud computing has raised concerns around security, privacy, costs, lock-in and reliability –all of which have to be addressed robustly. During the era, a hybrid click and mortar model emerged from the ashes of pure forms of “click only” enterprises. Pure cloud “for all and now” is not a reality.

Cloud technology is gathering momentum. When disruptive sandstorms blow, the worst strategy is to bury one’s head in the sand--- unless you are an Ostrich. When digital photography was devouring market share of film cameras, Canon and Nikon adopted the strategy of creative destruction. They cannibalized their own market shares of photographic equipment that used films and emerged as leaders in the digital photography space.

Stephen Elsop , President of Microsoft’s business division strikes a cautious note, “While I advocate for the cloud, there’s a desire among many customers to avoid a technology ultimatum. Certain applications will be well served by the cloud, while others will benefit from immediate proximity to local computing and graphical capabilities, memory, storage and so on”. He advocates a software and services approach and does not consider it an either/ or.

In the current economic climate, Capital Expenditure (CAPEX) budgets are tight. Conditions are favourable for adoption of cloud. It promises to convert CAPEX into OPEX (Operating Expenditure).Subscriptions go up as the operations scale up and go down if business ramps down. . According to IDC, IT Cloud Services will grow threefold reaching $42 billion by 2012.

What opportunities does this disruptive technology present for the start-ups in India? The early success of India’s IT industry was founded on a thin CAPEX business model. Start-up entrepreneurs had education in technology, middle class values, a big dream and little money in their pockets. In the beginning, on-site “body-shopping” based on a combination of high quality talent and a cost-of-labour arbitrage filled their coffers.

With accumulated profits, they created large global offshore delivery centers at considerable investments. Their sprawling campuses looked like micro townships out of the US. They invested heavily in computing and communications infrastructure .

Over a period of time, ironically, the barrier to entry for the next generation became the ability to invest in large real estates and huge computing infrastructures. What if the game changes now? What happens if scrappy start-up companies build business models taking a cue from Bharti-Airtel .In this model, there is little CAPEX in IT. They pay subscriptions as they scale. What if by a wave of the magic wand , there is no need for a humongous campus. What if the smart model is to have an architecture that rides the cloud and takes advantage of local pools of talent across India? Would these start-ups then look like Davids that are agile, nimble, flexible? Would others become Goliaths, burdened with stranded assets? Will the price/performance curve of computing be re-drawn all over again? For the disrupters and innovators in India, the price of the entry to the game has just been slashed .There is a roar in the clouds while a new paradigm is born. Expect a burst of innovation and a challenge to the gods who have become complacent.