WASHINGTON – When Steve Ballmer said at the World Wide Partner Conference here on July 14 that he believes that the future of cloud computing includes rich clients, he may have been echoing the concerns of technology executives in industries where access to computing resources is critical. The problem with the cloud as a place for storage or for compute resources is that it’s only really useful if you can absolutely, positively, depend on it being there. Problem is, you can’t.
Yes, I know that Google is pushing a model for enterprise computing that bases everything in the cloud. Some of its applications work well there, and they do provide the flexibility so that you can reach them from nearly anywhere. But the real question for many companies isn’t that. The real question is whether you can always reach those applications.
Perhaps there will come a day when access to the internet is totally constant. But that day hasn’t come yet, any more than access to electricity has come to every company, all the time. The idea of electricity as a public utility has been around since the late 19th century, but even with over 125 years of debugging, big companies, and companies with critical needs to stay operational still have a generator installed out behind the building somewhere. Smaller companies, including mine, have the same issue, and while the generators are smaller, they’re still there.
So if something as basic as electricity or even running water can’t be guaranteed, why assume that access to the cloud is a sure thing? In fact, you can’t. And with a century less time for debugging, access to the cloud is a lot less sure than is access to electricity or water. So what does this have to do with Microsoft’s assertion that rich clients are where the future lies?
The fact is that you can’t depend on access to the cloud at a high enough level of reliability to work for many enterprises. Companies can’t just stop operating and take a day off if they can’t reach Google’s applications, regardless of the reason. It doesn’t matter if the reason is that Gmail is down; or that the cloud based applications are down; or the Internet is being flaky; or that there’s a bad router somewhere between you and your cloud provider. All that matters is that you can’t reach the tools you need to do your work.
The Enduring Value of a Well-Connected PC
If all you have to accomplish your company’s mission is a collection of thin clients and a connection to the Internet, you can be sure that the day will come when you will have to shut down operations because you don’t have access to the cloud. On the other hand, if you have a set of rich clients, work can continue. That work may be at a reduced level if you depend on information that’s stored in the cloud, but there will be ways to get at least some work done, and it’s likely that if you’re using a rich client – read PC here – you’ll also have a way to keep at least some data necessary for your business on-site so that a connection to the cloud isn’t completely necessary.
This is not to suggest that the cloud isn’t worth using, nor is it a suggestion that cloud based storage and applications don’t work. In reality they work fine, and using the cloud can reduce costs and improve productivity. There’s also no question that a move to the cloud is necessary for companies that need the flexibility to grow without having to dump vast quantities of money into capital expenditures.
But the other part of the equation is that the company must be able to function. Having a single point of failure, whether it’s the cloud or an application provider, is bad planning. Depending on a single cloud provider whether it’s Google or Microsoft without having some form of alternative is betting that the cloud and the access to the cloud will never fail. It’s a bet you’re sure to lose.
But that does not mean that Microsoft is stuck in a world of individual PCs running Windows, and nothing else? Two announcements at the Microsoft partner event here show that the company is moving into private clouds with its Remotefx update to Windows 7, and its Small Business Server’s Aurora version. Remotefx is designed to enhance virtual desktop interfaces to give users with thin clients an experience closely resembling what they’d see on a full computer. And Aurora is a version of Small Business Server that gets rid of SharePoint and Exchange, but adds a new ability to incorporate cloud computing directly from the server.
But Aurora doesn’t do anything to reduce the value of rich clients, and Remotefx isn’t really using the cloud as much as it’s using the remote desktop virtualization capability in the data center. So, while there’s no question that Microsoft is embracing the cloud, it’s also clear that the company is strengthening the value of a well-connected PC, which it’s now calling a rich client.