How Cloud Computing Can Boost Developing Nations

November 3, 2011 Off By Hoofer
Grazed from Forbes.  Author:  Eric Savitz.

By now, it’s no secret that cloud computing will change the IT landscape immeasurably in the next 10 years. Much of the discussion to date has been somewhat narrow, focusing on cost-savings to the enterprise and the public versus private cloud debate. When viewed from a global perspective, however, the potential of cloud computing is far beyond server consolidation and virtualization. Cloud computing fundamentally shifts the benefits of the Open Source movement, fueling innovation from new sectors, and impacting our culture at large in ways that parallel how we have seen Twitter and Facebook up-end the status quo.  Now imagine these changes in the context of the billions of citizens joining the digital economy in India, China or the Next-11

Right now, the critical barriers to entry for an entrepreneur with a disruptive idea (read: technology which may scale exponentially and unpredictably) are gaining access to low-cost, efficient infrastructure, implementing extremely complex software to maximize compute power and storage, and minimizing maintenance concerns. Cloud computing– and, more specifically, a new wave of Dynamic Infrastructure Services, as defined in a recent Forrester report – addresses all of these issues and can put powerful, flexible computing in the hands of the masses at a click.

Let’s take a step back to look at the evolution of the IT landscape, a necessary ingredient for enabling innovation. The hardware progression has been from the mainframe to the personal computer to more powerful clustered servers, with cost and access moving back and forth between large enterprises and corporations to small businesses and individuals. The introduction of hosted servers, co-location and managed services meant that even those entities, without significant capital or technical resources, could gain benefits previously unavailable to the start-up. Netflix was an early-adopter of these types of services and ultimately has become a success story for leveraging shared resources at the start of testing a business model before investing in dedicated hardware.

In the more recent past, the availability of Virtual Private Servers (VPS), in the form of Amazon’s Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) among others, has further driven the commoditization of infrastructure costs and growing ubiquity of compute and storage resource to empower IT organizations. And while cloud computing will never have a one-size-fits-all solution due to the compliance and security requirements of certain types of data and workloads (HIPPA regulations, for example), a healthy ecosystem has evolved which is leveraging open innovation combined with market forces to drive solutions like Dynamic Infrastructure Services, which maintain the scale and flexibility of public clouds with deterministic hardware preserving security and control of data and processes. And as IT resources, from computes to storage to networking, are being reframed as utilities to be consumed as an operational expense, we will see varied impact as new use cases become available to moreof an ever-growing society looking to take advantage of the benefits of efficient computing.

Recent evidence of this potential can be seen in the unlikely breakthrough for Firas Khatib, from the University of Washington. Khatib decided to share a longstanding problem in AIDS research in the form of Foldit, a program that reframes scientific challenges as a competitive multiplayer computer game. After scientists repeatedly failed to piece together the structure of a protein-cutting enzyme from an AIDS-like virus, they challenged the gamers to produce an accurate model of the enzyme — which they did in three weeks.

Accessing tens of thousands of users, this type of “distributed computing,” where (for example) volunteers effectively donate their home computing power when they don’t need it, isn’t a new idea.  But, to witness gamers all over the world, many without any training in science, solve a complex problem that has plagued Ph.D.s for more than 10 years in a mere three weeks is nothing short of astounding. With an underlying computational fabric that enables collaboration on a massive scale across borders, we are beginning to see what is possible if we combine open standards with crowdsourcing our global challenges.

Governments are finally becoming aware of the implications of combining cloud computing practices with open source initiatives for their citizenry. Free of license restriction, open source access acts as a basis for innovation, enabling motivated users to customize solutions for context-specific needs. This is both an efficient use of existing code base and increasingly a requirement as developing nations struggle with limited resources to tackle similar challenges.  And it is this need which, earlier this year, spurred a handful of members of the World Economic Forums’ Young Global Leaders and Technology Pioneers to launch the Open Cloud Initiative to determine how cloud computing can bridge both digital and economic divides in the developing world.

This initiative recognizes that in order to enable wide-spread adoption of these cutting-edge advances, cloud computing principles must be simplified and unified in order to amplify the benefits.  To this end, members of the WEF YGL are creating technology blueprints, which use widely available commodity hardware and open source software as the building blocks of high-performing, cost-effective cloud solutions.  Pre-integrating the elements required to achieve efficient computing reduces complexity and increases the likelihood of wide adoption.  The Open Cloud Initiative is also engaging governmental agencies in dialog to identify immediate uses for cloud technologies.

As many governments struggle to address societal needs through sustainable economic development, technological advancement is a critical ingredient for access to elevating basic and higher education. Educational institutions are often early adopters and architects as well as primary beneficiaries of technological innovation. One specific example from the Philippine Development Foundation is ULAP, the University Learning Acceleration Platform, which also means “cloud” in Filipino dialect. ULAP is a cloud-computing infrastructure designed to be shared across the seven designated research universities of the Philippines, which are focused on increasing the number of Ph.D.s and students in advanced science and technology disciplines through scholarships and grants. This creates demand for research infrastructure as professors and advanced science students require computing resources for research projects.

 

ULAP is expected to launch before the end of this year in partnership with local telecommunications vendors in the Philippines. As the changing needs of users often outpace the implementation of more traditional infrastructure, it has been critical to leverage an open hardware blueprint model to accommodate continuous improvementof the system.  Using open source virtualization technologies like KVM and Xen, ULAP is managed with the EUCALYPTUS and OpenStack cloud management platforms. This combination of open source building blocks with an open hardware blueprint aims to attract technology philanthropists and bright minds to help sustain technological advancement in a developing nation’s university program.

The WEF Open Cloud Initiative is observing projects like ULAP and refining their approach to advocacy and fundraising as governments and the private sector make their priorities known. This includes identification of successful bottom-up endeavors, like the “Teiden Kensaku” mobile application created in Japan after the tsunami on March 11, 2011.  In response to government-initiated rolling blackouts due to power shortages, this “Blackout Search” app saw massive uptake, with more than one million installs, as citizens looked to technology to help minimize disruption and predict and plan around controlled outages. While Japan’s rolling blackouts were part of disaster management in response to the aftermath of the tsunami, many countries in the developing world struggle with fluctuating power consumption.  What if we could share the core technology of an application that combines geo-specific information, like a power outage, with real-time alerts?

The penetration of mobile phones in the developing world has led to some very interesting examples of an upstart group harnessing a piece of technology in a new context — a mash-up which can evolve the kernel of an idea, like citizen reporting during disasters, into a powerful mechanism for government transparency. Ushahidi is one of the better-known success stories, developing open source software for information collection, visualization and interactive mapping.  The effort initially mapped reports of violence in Kenya during the post-election fallout in 2008 and has now been used by thousands of people in countries worldwide for making sense of complex real-time data being generated across multiple platforms.

Because solutions like these are unlikely to emerge from Silicon Valley, where the ethos and culture seem to be breeding a plethora of incremental add-ons to Twitter and Facebook, the best we can do is contribute our thought-leadership to drive access to efficient computing solutions which enable mobility, fuel innovation from previously unlikely corners of the world, and celebrate the global technology revolution that’s just beginning.