Power of the Decentralized Cloud

Amid the hype and reality of cloud computing, we are witnessing the largest build out of centralized data center infrastructure in history. Due to the increased demand for cloud-based services and applications and the incredible growth of digital data, cloud providers are spending billions of dollars to keep pace, and attempting to leverage geographic areas that have an abundance of natural energy or cooling power, such as the Arctic. It’s ironic that the cloud is driving this massive build out, since for many companies, the cloud enables them to minimize infrastructure purchases of hardware and software.

With the growing maturation of cloud computing, two distinct classes of cloud applications have arisen:  centralized and decentralized.

All of the facility build out I am talking about is powering centralized cloud applications. And in spite of the Internet being a truly decentralized network, surprisingly little energy or dollars are being spent on enabling decentralized cloud applications.

Most applications we see on the Internet today are hosted centrally in one or more data centers and take very little advantage of the capabilities on the edge.  Even some previously decentralized models, like email (SMTP), which was designed to be a decentralized application, have evolved into a centralized model, with mega email providers such as Hotmail, Yahoo and Gmail – all of which are built on a centralized data center infrastructure. Business email is still fairly decentralized, although we do see a definite trend towards centralization there as well.

Interestingly, the same can be said about the Web (HTTP) itself.  The word “Web” was intended to define a true mesh across the Internet.  It is a mesh but a highly lopsided one, with the majority of Web Servers hosted across a few data centers.

Skype is one of the few decentralized cloud applications we see in widespread use.  While some users are not aware of this, Skype is a true peer-to-peer network, which routes communications through the bandwidth of network users.  In doing so, Skype has built the largest voice and video communications system without building much centralized infrastructure.

I’m a big believer of decentralized systems in general, so it’s not surprising that we built Symform as a decentralized, peer-to-peer cloud storage network. As I mentioned, the power of the Internet comes from it being decentralized.  It spreads organically and through natural economic drivers.

The Open Source movement is the same type of decentralized model, where no one person or organization is ultimately in charge, and yet, this is where its power and scalability thrive, as all members want to contribute to the movement and, in return, benefit from others’ contributions.

It is worth observing that all decentralized systems do have a central core of some sort that everyone must align to.  Standard specifications like TCP/IP, HTTP and HTML are at the core of the Internet.  Linux is at the core of Open Source movement. Skype owns and runs the core of its decentralized system. What ultimately made these systems successful was getting more and more people to start using the core in different ways to solve their own problems. What started as viral movements became revenue generating solutions and companies.

We should abstract this model and look across our IT stack to see other areas where decentralization can help drive cost savings, increased scalability and ability to better utilize our existing infrastructure, rather than building out more data centers.

And we should examine what is driving centralization of services like email and Web when they were designed to be decentralized? That will be the topic of my next blog post.

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