Incomplete Thought: Cloud Computing & Innovation – Government IT’s Version of Ethanol?
Time to stick my neck outside my shell again…
I was reading MIT’s Technology Review (registration required) and came across an interesting article titled “Can Technology Save the Economy?”
This was a very thought-provoking read as it highlighted how tens of billions of dollars allocated to energy and information technology in the U.S. stimulus bill causes many economists and innovation experts to remain extremely skeptical:
The concern over the stimulus bill’s technology spending is not just that it offends conventional macroeconomic theory about the best way to boost the economy; it’s that it might harm the very technologies it means to support. Because the bill was written quickly and shaped by political expeidiency, economists and experts on innovation policy are leery of many of its funding choices.
Could extending billions of dollars’ worth of fiber-optic lines to rural communities, for example, become a boondoggle? Or what if utilities run high-power transmission lines to remote solar or wind farms only to find that the electricity they produce is too expensive to compete with other sources?
As a historical analogy, experts point to corn-derived ethanol. Once the darling of alternative-energy advocates, the heavily subsidied biofuel is now routinedly condemned by both environmentalists and economists. Yet because ethanol’s use in gasoline is now mandated by federal law, and a large industry is now invested in its production, and its production is likely to continue even though it offers few envorinmental benefits over gasoline.
This example shows that we’ve gone so far down the path of “corn power” despite it’s lack of delivering on its promises. We can’t escape from the gravity of our investment driven by the fervor surrounding its adoption which it seems in many cases were based upon untested theories and unsubstantiated practice.
Ethanol was designed to resolve dependencies on straight fossil fuels. It was supposed to cost less and deliver better performance at lower emissions. It hasn’t quite worked out that way. In reality, ethanol has produced many profound unanticipated impacts; financial, environmental, economic, political and social. Has it’s production and governmentally-forced adoption driven better solutions from being properly investigated?
Despite my unbridled enthusiasm for Cloud Computing, I am conflicted as I examine it using a similar context to the ethanol example above. I fully admit that I’m stretching the analog here and mixing metaphors, but the article got me thinking and some of that is playing out here. It *is* an “incomplete thought,” after all.
While Cloud adoption in certain scenarios may certainly offer tremendous agility and in some cases forthright cost savings, one must ask if the cult of personality surrounding Cloud, especially in the public sector, is not unduly influenced by the pressing macroeconomic conditions, confusing applications of ROI across various dozens of use cases enveloped by a single term, and the same sort of political expediency described above.
With all of its many benefits, Cloud presents many (if not more) challenges stemming from not solving problems we’ve had for decades. Cloud is a convenient reason to leap forward whilst refusing to look from whence we are jumping; we’re not necessarily solving problems, we’re “transforming” them.
As with much disruptive innovation, the timing and intersection of technology, religion, culture, economics and politics can mean the difference between bust or boom.
In the case of Cloud, I’d suggest that the collision space provides the proverbial perfect storm; the hyping of Cloud Computing is largely premature and a convenient scape-horse to which we are hitching our cost-laden IT wagons. The momentous interest surrounding Cloud in the Public Sector sounds eerily similar to the ethanol scenario above. Are we so wrapped around the axle with Cloud Computing that we’re actually blinding ourselves from solving the problems we have in fundamentally better ways?
The danger, of course, is that while the federal dollars could help renewable-energy companies survive the recession, they could also prop up existing technologies that would not be competitive in an open market. Not only could the federal spending support uneconomical energy sources (as has been the case with ethanol), but the resulting backlash could discourage policy makers, investors, and the public from embracing newer, more efficient technologies.
Putting on my devil’s advocate hate I have to ask “Are we ignoring potentially better solutions to our problems?” Certainly we’re seeing a definite spike in the punctuated equilibrium of IT’s evolution, but at this point, one might argue it’s a supply driven demand. Is Cloud Computing really the answer to our problems or a fantastic and convenient way of treating the symptoms?
You can’t swing a dead cat in Washington without somebody talking about moving something to the Cloud. One the one hand, it’s fantastic to see Government think outside the box, but what happens when the box collapses?
The movie will play out and we’ll have to wait and see whether the horsepower delivered by Cloud is more analogous to ethanol — a reformulated version of gasoline that doesn’t really deliver on it’s promises, but that we’re stuck with — or whether we’ll see the equivalent of the IT hydrogen fuel cell instead.
Time will tell. What do you think?