Beyond the cloud: a supersonic flight of fantasy

What replaces today’s cloud?

All eyes are on the cloud as it cements its position as the next de facto standard for IT systems. For the next decade or so we can expect cloud to continue to dominate IT strategy as the hyperscalers build out their services to provide complete geographical coverage and continue to invest billions in the networking and compute infrastructure needed to support growing demand.

Cloud infrastructure is evolving quickly to position cloud capabilities at the “edge” to support running applications close to where data originates in the physical world.

Conquering space

We are now even promised cloud coverage from beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. Google Cloud and Elon Musk’s Space-X have announced that the former’s cloud capability is to be combined with the latter’s low orbit satellite network to deliver cloud services and high-speed broadband around the world. For Google, which is currently bringing up the rear in the race with the other hyperscalers, the ability to deliver services beyond the major regions currently dominated by Amazon (AWS) and Microsoft (Azure) could be significant. The space cloud could be Google’s competitive edge.

But after they have wired the deserts and conquered space, the cloud providers will eventually run out of room – not physical or virtual space, but the laws of physics that determine how many bytes can be squeezed onto a silicon wafer and the speed at which electrons can be propelled over wires or through the atmosphere.

So, what replaces today’s cloud?

The answer is most likely to be quantum computing, which is still in the realm of theory and early-stage experiments. Like supersonic flight, the barriers to implementing cost and operationally efficient quantum computing will be broken, unleashing previously undreamt of power, but raising some interesting questions. Among the biggest is who will control and dominate the provider landscape.

Governments versus social media

Social media, Internet and cloud have seen power concentrated in the hands of a small number of very large for-profit organizations – Facebook, Google, Amazon, Alibaba, and Microsoft. In a world struggling to come to terms with the economic, political and social influence of these technology giants and with geopolitical forces pulling back from globalism, what might this mean for the development of quantum computing?

One possible scenario, given the huge investment needed and strategic value of controlling the world’s IT – which is to the global economy of the 21st century what oil was to the 20th – is that governments may seek to take control of quantum computing infrastructure. Could the quantum cloud of the future be run not by AWS but by Washington or Beijing? Might quantum computing power fuel a new wave of nationalism and/or geopolitical alignments? Is this the next space race, fueled as much by the desire for nation states to gain new global competitive advantages, versus being pursued as just the next technological or scientific advancement?

It seems unlikely that today’s tech giants will have their wings clipped in disruptive ways by governments. Although national agencies (DARPA, NASA, CERN) have been responsible for great breakthroughs, governments continue to rely on private sector interests for the commercialization of technology and the economic benefits it brings. Governments will continue to walk the narrow line between restraining the tech giants while demonstrating their support for existing private sector innovation. Critics of Huawei would also argue that if there’s one thing more undesirable than an unfettered private sector company, it’s an unfettered state-controlled one.

There’s also a self-regulating tendency or at least a pragmatic urge at work in global industries. As mature sectors such as the automobile industry show, after years of territorial battles the survivors eventually stop trying to beat each other up and focus on capturing the hearts and minds of customers with branding and lifestyle positioning.

We’re already starting to see cloud wars enter a more civilized phase. However much the hyperscalers might dream of world domination, they now realize it is a multi-cloud reality. Customers have spoken and multi-cloud is the new normal. Facilitating peaceful co-existence and even cloud-to-cloud integration will soon become part of the hyperscalers’ stock in trade, forcing them onto new competitive ground. As the global cloud network becomes as commoditized as the automobile, cloud providers will have to start thinking about upholstery, gearbox and suspension options, and color schemes.

Quantum futures, or…?

While it’s fun to speculate that the next computing revolution will be driven by new players, don’t be surprised to see the likes of Microsoft and Oracle, which have already survived more than one tectonic shift in IT, reinvent their business to capitalize on the next one –distributed quantum computing. And we will see the hyperscalers act as the tip of the spear for driving the adoption of quantum computing. After all, it’s just the next wave of infrastructure, and who are the masters of deploying and operating infrastructure at scale?

Finally, a caveat about our powers of prediction. Business and economic realities often have a way of overshadowing the glitz and glamour of shiny new technologies. The first supersonic passenger airliner went into service in 1976 amid claims of a revolution in high-speed air travel. Forty-five years later, there are no commercial supersonic services operating.

Leave a Reply