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The Passion of the Cloud

Panelists at Shanghai Conference Speak From the Heart

There was a palpable intensity in many of the Cloud Computing discussions at the recent Cloud APAC conference in Shanghai. The vast majority of attendees were local, complemented by a two-day program in which about 60% of the speakers were from China. (The other 40% came from the US, Australia, India, and Taiwan.)

Simultaneous translation aided communication and understanding considerably. What struck me was the passion, sometimes almost fearful, from many of the local speakers. This was especially true with those from Shanghai, a group that was openly critical of the city's progress in Cloud Computing and the challenge it faces in emerging as a world leader in this revolution. One speaker exhorted attendees to push hard for Cloud within their companies, or face extinction. All the speakers from China regarded Cloud as inevitable.

To an American, this passion was surprising at first, given that China seems to be the place with the great economy these days, China's manufacturing success is destroying the US industrial base, and China's infrastructure is becoming fantabulous while the US is headed in the other direction. Surely the country was emerging as a world-beater in IT as well?

Laggards No More
Perhaps this will be true if present trends are simply extrapolated into the future. But as we sit, the US still spends more than 10X that of China on enterprise IT annually; this with 3X the GDP but only 25% of the population. Although the relative lack of legacy IT in China can be seen as an advantage in the move toward Cloud, the same lack means, literally, that China remains significantly behind the West today.

It was this laggardness that so many speakers in Shanghai addressed. Most consumers continue to access the Internet at 300kbps, slow in an era of multi-megabit rates found in the US, and glacial compared to the networks deployed in Asian neighbors Japan and South Korea. Wide-area network bottlenecks remain a weak link throughout the country. And the elephant in the room was, of course, the lack of a free flow of information on the Web.

I googled "Tiananmen Square" for giggles from my slow room connection at the conference hotel, and was immediately met with a "Cannot Find Server" error. Subsequent searches for "Chairman Mao" and "Cultural Revolution" met the same fate. My initial search, in fact, closed off all searches apparently, as my "Vietnam War" inquiry also went nowhere.

The next day, I was able to conduct routine google searches, looking for places to eat, information on Shanghai's Expo 2010, and a map of the marvelous (and marvelously cheap) Shanghai metro subway system. But I could never get through to Twitter. No tweets from Shanghai.

The Chinese government's views on what Americans think of as First Amendment rights means that social networking lags the West badly. The country's most popular homegrown site may be approaching 100 million users now (in a population of 1.3 billion), but is more of the Facebook "look at me" varietal than something that would have any serious, let alone controversial, discussion.

It's tough to take the culture-centric blinkers off, but I think it's a requirement here. I've spoken with many, many Chinese people in my recent visits there, and none express a problem with their government's view on what Americans would call censorship. They are not fearful, either; no darting of eyes about when talking to me, no veiled language that would indicate they're telling me anything other than what they believe.

Are "They" "Just Like Us?"
Does China really need to embrace the self-absorbed, exhibitionist culture that permeates the US these days? Isn't the US weakening itself fatally through its constant self-amusement? Isn't the idea of the Library of Congress archiving every tweet still the dumbest thing you've ever heard?

I'm fortunate enough to remember two of my great-grandparents from childhood days. They were born in 1873 and 1880, respectively. Their lives were a little tougher than ours, given they didn't have electricity, running water, or antibiotics until middle age. They barely understood was TV was all about. They were already grandparents when the Great Depression hit.

Their experience was the same as that of most people from that era, and it was their generation that initially built the United States into the 20th century powerhouse that it became. Their experience was also similar to that of most Chinese today. Even in gleaming Shanghai, a metro area of more than 20 million people, one sees a lot of pushcarts, people hauling sticks on their backs, and endless tiny stores and living spaces that look no different than what one sees in the Philippines or Guatemala. In the rural areas that a short-term Western visitor such as me will never see, life presumably remains hard, uncompromising, with little hope of immediate improvement.

The recent widely reported rash of middle-aged men going berserk and attacking innocent students reflects the social tensions in this still-emerging country. Even if we, for example, believe an optimistic McKinsey projection that 48% of Chinese households have reached at least a lower middle-class level (representing about $10,000 annual income adjusted for local prices), that means there are close to 700 million Chinese who remain in poverty.

This is what's in the minds of those passionate speakers in Shanghai, of this I'm sure, rather than when they'll get to tweet about where they're going this week-end. My experience has been that the Chinese citizens I've met are neither stupid nor naive, and my guess is the last thing they want or need is a lecture from an American about "the truth" of Tiananmen Square.

Remember Japan Inc.? Neither Do We
In the 1970s, Japan was eating the West for lunch. Imported steel, cars, and electronics were wiping out portions of the US industrial base, as industry leaders and politicians alike decried the country's trade practices. The fear and paranoia eased after a swift and brutal Japanese currency re-evaluation (that strengthened it) in the early 1980s, engineered by James Baker, the Secretary of the Treasury during Ronald Reagan's first term, and the movement of much of Japanese-branded auto manufacturing to North America. Subsequently, in the 1990s to the present day, "Japan Inc." has revealed itself to be a troubled, often dysfunctional place, unable to make that leap from economic power to geopolitical leader.

A similar warning about the Man Behind the Curtain may be in order for China. Fear and paranoia runs high in the US over what China is doing to the country's manufacturing base. Liberals decry Chinese censorship, and conservatives remind us that Communists, after all, are still in power. Yet, as I write this, the Chinese currency is strengthening, under pressure from the US (and Japan). The country is outsourcing some of its lower end manufacturing in the face of rising labor costs. As noted above, cracks in its society are starting to show.

Cloud Computing may or may not transform the way the world thinks of computers and IT. It may or may not be "the Big Switch" that moves computing power from a precious, local resource to a utilitarian commodity. It is, however, a way for enterprises large and small to achieve productivity goals and business strategies based on ongoing cost rather than traditional upfront capital expenditure. It is seen by many Chinese, or at least a sampling of speakers at one event in Shanghai, as a way to help drag the world's largest society into the modern world.

As for the US, time to heed Betty White's advice, stop spending all day in the Phonebook, er, in Facebook, and get to work solving real problems again.

 

More Stories By Roger Strukhoff

Roger Strukhoff (@IoT2040) is Executive Director of the Tau Institute for Global ICT Research, with offices in Illinois and Manila. He is Conference Chair of @CloudExpo & @ThingsExpo, and Editor of SYS-CON Media's CloudComputing BigData & IoT Journals. He holds a BA from Knox College & conducted MBA studies at CSU-East Bay.

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