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February 2010


This is the time of year for reflection and prediction, but as the man said, prediction is a tricky business, especially about the future.  Who would have guessed two years ago that the faintly ridiculous Twitter would have become so prominent, or that Facebook and others like it would have become a marketing force to be reckoned with.  All over the country, courses are being run to teach business people how to make the most of these gadgets, and they are finding ready pupils amongst the baffled commercial community.

It’s no fad; I already know of several professionals in a variety of fields who derive a very large part of their work from promoting themselves on these Social Networking sites.

Of course, that’s not to say that some other bright idea won’t soon pop up to usurp them all; in fact it almost certainly will.  Perhaps it will be some means of unifying all the various threads of this strange industry, so that we don’t need separate accounts at Twitter, Facebook, Bebo, Linkedin and others, bringing  the certainty that we will forget at least one of the passwords .  Google and Yahoo have made stabs at this, but have not really managed it yet.

One social change it has created is the re-introduction of the mobile phone to polite society.  The so-called Smartphones  (such as Iphones) are becoming more affordable; as well as being phones, they allow the user full access to all his Twittering and Facebooking at all times.  Whereas at the start of a lecture or a conference we used to be asked to turn off our phones, we are now encouraged to keep them on, so that news of what is going on may be disseminated as fast as possible, and reaction sought from around the world.  It is still impolite to actually make a phone call, but anyway  those are so old fashioned these days…

What we will also see in 2010 is the increased use of “Cloud Computing”.  This means running your affairs, business or personal, by using the internet to connect to powerful computers owned by someone else, and on which you have stored all your data.  You already do this if you use a web based email system like Yahoo or Hotmail; all your messages are being stored out there somewhere, rather than on your own computer, where you can keep an eye on them.

This system has many benefits, especially for businesses;  it’s cheaper than owning your own big system, and someone else has to look after the security of the machinery and keep it working. 

For exactly that reason, however, it is also a massive accident waiting to happen.  I predict that in 2010 there will be a huge failure of some data-centre somewhere, perhaps through natural disaster,  financial collapse or even criminal activity.  This might not matter if it is well run, because they will have back-up systems and complex encryption to protect it all, but if it is a cheap and cheerful provider, who hold their computers together with sealing wax and string, you’ll lose the lot.

Google, and others, are building huge “server farms” all over the place.  These are rows and rows of industrial buildings filled with big computers (called “Servers”) to store all our data.  Many of these Server Farms are actually bigger than normal farms.

What’s more, because it is important to keep them cool, it makes sense to build them in a cold place, so, believe it or not, they are building them in Siberia.  So answer me this: how keen would, for example, a large British exporter be to have all their data stored in Russia?  Not very, I suspect, but they wouldn’t know it were.

I have no doubt that we will soon see a major incident involving data loss (at best) , or  data theft (at worst)  from one of these storage places.

The irony is that one of the reasons Server Farms are economically attractive is that the cost of the equipment they need is falling like a stone, meaning it is also becoming cheaper for companies to create their own facilities and stay out of the Cloud.  Having your head in the clouds is, after all, no way to run a business.