When most people think of information stored in ‘the cloud’ today, they’ll rarely put much thought into what that means – as if the information is magically stored in the air around them. Out of sight and out of mind, few will consider the fact it’s really stored in a physical data centre somewhere; a huge centralised hub of information locked away hundreds or thousands of miles away.
These data centres form a vital part of the internet’s infrastructure, and the content and services we consume more of every day. It’s staggering to think, then, that something so important is so unfit for purpose. Yet, that’s the situation we are faced with today: data centres are an unsustainable solution that is costly and damages the environment. Worse still, three-quarters of that unsustainable market is controlled by just four technology companies (Amazon, Microsoft, IBM and Google).
New and legacy cloud providers have increasingly shown they recognise the problem – and that’s where things get even stranger. The latest initiative to address it saw Microsoft launch Project Natick – an attempt to make data centres greener by submerging them under water. It’s an expensive experiment that involved sinking a white cylinder packed with servers just off the coast of Scotland, with the hope that water will satisfy the need to keep the machines cool without the expensive systems used in conventional warehouse farms.
While it seems churlish to criticise a company for trying to ‘do the right thing’, it’s hard to believe this costly response is a sustainable option for the future. Especially when there might be a smarter solution that lies closer to home.
Home as a data centre
In fact, DADI believes the solution is inside the home. Instead of short-term solutions to the data centre problem, it’s time to start thinking about the wealth of unused data storage in homes and offices across the world – with billions of computers, games consoles, TVs and other connected devices, that spend most of their lives in standby mode.
Connected together, these devices could power a faster, fairer cloud network that is decentralised. That means no central point of failure, no server farms that harm the environment, and no ‘solutions’ such as sinking expensive equipment into the ocean. In the same way that solar panels are now seen as a viable way for homes to become energy self-sufficient, or even income-generating, it’s not hard to imagine a future where our devices at home and in the office are used to power a more environmentally-friendly cloud network.
Then there’s speed. The UK’s average broadband speeds of 46Mbps downstream and 6Mbps upstream might sound low in comparison with a tier-one data centre, but by linking devices together in a decentralised network, the potential is enormous. And of course, this aggregated computing power would leverage devices already manufactured and in use – rather than building additional devices to power vast new server farms. Suddenly, the idea of our homes becoming a data centre doesn’t seem far-fetched at all.
The added benefits for businesses are also clear. With this collective approach, legacy vendor lock-in will disappear because a quicker, safer, cheaper source of cloud services is available – with minimal technology barriers to adoption.
In recent years, interest and investment in ‘smart home’ technologies have grown spectacularly. The industry could be worth $53bn by 2022, built on our fascination with connected homes that make modern life easier – from refrigerators that automatically order your shopping to doorbells that allow you to answer remotely.
These may be neat improvements and conveniences, but the ‘home as a data centre’ concept represents a more radical shift in the way we run and govern the internet in years to come. You could argue it offers us a way back from today’s lack of trust and transparency in the technology giants that dominate our digital lives, towards an internet that truly lives up to its own founding principles.
Making the net work for you
For both sides of that equation, the next question becomes “what’s the incentive?” Any change is a challenge – even for a new network that is faster, fairer and safer.
Crucially then, this new way of thinking offers benefits beyond power: it’s also about profit. At DADI, for example, we recently launched our own decentralised cloud network that will give 85% of network revenues directly back to those who contribute computing power. Those who give the most will also earn the most back – enough to cover their broadband bill for example or provide the option to buy a wireless speaker that pays for itself over time. The remaining 15% is split between network maintenance costs and funding the DADI Foundation – a new independent, charitable body that will back causes which use technology to support democracy.
I believe this decentralised route is the smart solution and the right thing to do, resulting in a faster, fairer, safer network powered and majority-owned by the public. Such a dramatic change will take time, but momentum is growing with the first few networks already live – and with so much to gain, hopefully, we’ll be looking at a very different cloud landscape this time next year.