By providing computing resources as a service rather than a product, 'cloud computing' is revolutionising access to software, processing power and storage. Its development is being aided by ground-breaking research carried out in Europe.
Just a few years ago, if someone needed to store or process a large amount of data they would have to buy their own computers, servers, databases and other infrastructure. Now, thanks to cloud computing, they can instantly rent as much as they need for as long as they need it. With just an internet connection, they can access the resources they require - much as people draw electricity from the power grid without having to worry about building their own power station.
Cloud computing's origins are obscure, but it is a fitting description: the cloud is large, 'out there somewhere' and fuzzy at the edges. It covers everything from simple webmail, or online file storage and sharing applications, to distributed processing resources and software as a service, accessible anywhere, anytime via the internet by multiple and simultaneous users.
What is clear is the cloud's enormous growth and its potential to define the future of ICT. According to some estimates, the global cloud computing market is currently worth around EUR 30 billion. By 2020 it is set to expand six-fold to almost EUR 200 billion.
Businesses are turning to the cloud to lower costs by using online, on-demand cloud computing resources as and when they need them, thereby avoiding the need to set up data centres and install other costly IT infrastructure. Governments and citizens are doing the same, increasingly using remotely hosted services, storage and processing tools to store, manage and use data.
'Users now require capabilities that are far richer than raw bits and basic storage,' says Dr Hillel Kolodner, from IBM in Haifa, Israel. 'To satisfy this need, the focus must shift to the data... Data should be a first-class citizen, where its importance is comparable to the computing power itself.'
Dr Kolodner is coordinating the Vision Cloud (1) project that aims to make clouds smarter. Supported by more than EUR 9 million in EU funding, the project is developing technology to abstract the meaning of data objects such as text, multimedia or software content stored in the cloud. It will then turn them into smart objects that include rich semantic information describing what they are and how they should be handled, replicated or backed up.
The goal, to be tested in applications designed for sectors such as health care, the media and telecommunications, is to improve data mobility and enable more efficient and secure methods of computation, potentially allowing many IT tasks to be done more cost-effectively in the cloud by third-party providers of computing power.
Smart clouds will undoubtedly solve many data storage and data management problems, but users are still faced with the question of deciding exactly what cloud resources, services and providers best suit their requirements. Researchers from Spain, France, Hungary, Italy and Romania are currently working together in the Mosaic (2) project to develop an easy-to-use brokering system that will help users search for cloud services that best match their requirements, or use more than one cloud service simultaneously if no single service fits the bill.
'Using the Mosaic solution you do not have to decide on a specific cloud provider at design time, instead any time you use cloud services, you will access the ones best fitting your needs,' the project team says.
While making the cloud smarter and easier to use will undoubtedly help, barriers to the development of cloud services still remain. Relying heavily on clouds to store, manage and share content, applications and services also carries potential risks. Some experts have warned that a failure of cloud systems, because of hacking, viruses or other causes, would threaten all dependent ICT and put the future internet at risk.
IDC has undertaken a study, 'Quantitative estimates of the demand for cloud computing in Europe and the likely barriers to take-up', to identify these issues for the European Commission. According to the interim report, while user concerns do not stop uptake completely, worries about data location, legal jurisdiction, security and data protection do slow down business adoption. The European Commission is therefore committed to tackling the barriers to cloud development, such as security, data location and legal jurisdiction over data, as well as data and application portability.
With those concerns in mind, the EU is funding the Austrian-led Tclouds (3) project, which aims to build trustworthy cloud infrastructures. The focus is on achieving security, privacy and resilience in a way that is cost-efficient, simple and scalable, and, by proxy, ensuring the continued expansion of cloud infrastructure, resources and services for many years to come.
The TClouds project's work to push privacy through design technologies and legal guidance should help build a higher level of trust in public clouds, and is supported by the International Working Group on Data Protection in Telecommunications.
And what if your needs go far beyond storage and data management, to processing and running software in the cloud? And what if you want many geographically dispersed users, such as a multinational sales force, to be able to access and work collaboratively in real-time much as they could via your own servers? Cloud offerings must continue to evolve, or this too could become a barrier to greater use.
'The new generation of applications we are seeing are all about interactivity - people need and want to access and work with them in real time, so any platform, any environment must also enable interactivity,' explains Dimosthenis Kyriazis, a senior researcher at the National Technical University of Athens. 'If the applications are interactive, the infrastructure that services them should facilitate that interaction.'
Dr Kyriazis is the technical coordinator of IRMOS (4), a project that has brought real-time functionality to the cloud through an innovative service-oriented infrastructure. The team developed open source tools to enable anyone to build applications for real-time cloud computing. The project pays special attention to quality of service (QoS) guarantees that are essential in a real-time working environment.
Building a cloud that will continue to work better and better in the future is also a focus of EU R&D funding, and QoS features heavily in another of these projects. The focus of Ensure (5) is on storage, and, more specifically, on using cloud resources to safely and securely preserve digital data for the long term - a crucial requirement for many companies and organisations. The project is focused on sectors such as health care, clinical trials and financial services with a view to demonstrating how organisations can securely leverage scalable infrastructure, conform to contractual, regulatory and legal requirements and manage the long-term integrity of intellectual property or highly personal data.
Meanwhile, cloud accessibility is the main goal of Venus-C (6). Aimed particularly at SMEs and the scientific research community, the team behind the project has taken a user-centric approach to the cloud to develop scalable and interoperable cloud resources, combining both open source and proprietary solutions to offer the best of both worlds.
Innovatively, the researchers' approach was guided by the requirements of end-users themselves: 27 teams of researchers from across Europe and 15 selected pilot projects that received seed money from Venus-C following an open call that attracted 60 proposals from 17 countries. The pilot teams' cloud computing requirements have steered the design of the infrastructure, which is being used for many different applications, from drug discovery to civil engineering and civil protection.
In the ExtremeFactories (7) project, meanwhile, researchers are harnessing cloud resources to enable globally networked SMEs to adopt systematic innovation processes, helping them become virtual organisations with a view to aiding product design, development and production. The platform will support SMEs in collaborating and innovating in a networked environment.
The solution will address the needs of manufacturing companies and will seek both product and process innovation. This platform will provide SMEs with services to support them in any step of the innovation life-cycle, from problem detection, through inception and prioritisation of ideas, to implementation and follow-up. The project has a strong industrial basis, combining the efforts of seven industrial manufacturing SMEs.
In the LinkedTV (8) initiative, a team from eight European countries are building on the convergence of television and the internet, weaving content together to deliver a single, integrated and interactive experience.. An online cloud of networked audio-visual content will be accessible regardless of place, device or source, and the experience will be of 'TV' whether it is seen on a TV set, smartphone, tablet or personal computing device. For example, a library of documentary films and archives will put shared cultural knowledge and heritage at the fingertips of every connected citizen.
Meanwhile, researchers working in the Cloud4All (9) initiative are using cloud computing in a pioneering way to boost accessibility to technology for people with disabilities when and where they need it. Instead of individual products and services being adapted for a person with special needs, cloud-powered technology will automatically personalise the product or service for them, activating and augmenting any built-in accessibility features that the product or service has based on a profile of the user's requirements.
From the sheer range of these applications, it is clear that the cloud has a great deal of potential to be developed and exploited.
'Cloud computing will change our economy. It can bring significant productivity benefits to all, right through to the smallest companies, and also to individuals. It promises scalable, secure services for greater efficiency, greater flexibility, and lower cost,' Neelie Kroes, Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda, pointed out earlier this year.
EU research is both exploring potential cloud applications and breaking down the barriers to this development. The European Cloud Partnership, announced by Commissioner Kroes in January and aimed at supporting cloud adoption in Europe, is expected to start producing results over the coming months following initial funding of EUR 10 million from the European Commission. Meanwhile, the Commission is also putting the finishing touches on a European Cloud Strategy following a thought-provoking Cloud Workshop held in June during the Digital Agenda Assembly in Brussels.
As Commissioner Kroes has noted: '2012 is the year when the cloud grows up. Let's be ready.'
The projects featured in this article have been supported by the Sixth or Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) for research.
(1) Vision Cloud: Virtualized Storage Services for the Future Internet
(2) Mosaic: Open-Source API and Platform for Multiple Clouds
(3) Tclouds: Trustworthy Clouds? Privacy and Resilience for Internet-scale Critical Infrastructure
(4) Irmos: Interactive real-time multimedia applications on service oriented infrastructures
(5) Ensure: Enabling kNowledge Sustainability Usability and Recovery for Economic value
(6) Venus-C: Virtual multidisciplinary EnviroNments USing Cloud infrastructures
(7) ExtremeFactories: On-the-cloud environment implementing agile management methods for enabling the set-up, monitoring and follow-up of business innovation processes in industrial SMEs
(8) LinkedTV: Television Linked To The Web
(9) Cloud4All: Cloud platforms Lead to Open and Universal access for people with Disabilities and for All
- FP7 on CORDIS
- Vision Cloud on CORDIS
- Mosaic on CORDIS
- Irmos on CORDIS
- Ensure on CORDIS
- Venus-C on CORDIS
- ExtremeFactories on CORDIS
- LinkedTV on CORDIS
- Cloud4All on CORDIS
- Tclouds on CORDIS
- Setting up the European Cloud Partnership
- Digital Agenda Assembly, Cloud Workshop