Mission to a Collaborative Cloud: America’s Next Tech Frontier

Julie Anderson by Julie Anderson, AG Strategy Group
Tuesday, November 6, 2012

When Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon in 1969, he famously declared it as “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” But Armstrong’s moon walk was more than just a milestone in human history: it represented an accomplishment achieved through American teamwork and cooperation.

Created in response to the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik, NASA through the course of the Apollo program hired over 35,000 employees and 400,000 contractors from thousands of U.S. aerospace companies and academic institutions. All were united toward a common goal: winning the Space Race and keeping America at the forefront of technological innovation.

Now, over 40 years later, a new technology frontier is upon us: cloud computing—and you might be surprised to learn who stands ahead. While America’s early lead in the cloud market has yielded intense competition and market fragmentation, Europe is developing a new model that plans to tap into the cloud’s full potential. With a fresh take on cloud collaboration across multiple sectors, the region is ambitiously plotting its own digital future—and the U.S. may be falling behind.

In support of its new cloud computing strategy, the EU recently announced a plan to assemble a cloud infrastructure to supply scientific researchers with secure computing capabilities that greatly surpass existing alternatives in the global market. The network, dubbed Helix Nebula, would have the capacity to support the technological needs of all European science organizations, a feat made possible only by the combined efforts of scientists, cloud providers, and government.

It’s a case study that proves once again how collaboration can stretch the boundaries of technology and achieve a collectively beneficial long-term vision. Though initially fulfilling the needs of data-intensive scientific research, Helix Nebula will ultimately become a multi-tenant, multi-provider system serving businesses, governments, universities, and civilians—making the upfront costs a worthy investment on Europe’s IT development for decades to come.

To achieve this ambitious goal, the project has enlisted Europe’s largest cloud providers to design an entirely new and sustainable business model. Participating providers must comply with a set of quality, compatibility, security, and privacy standards to facilitate the successful and safe pooling of resources. As indicated in the European Cloud Computing Strategy, the standards would be established under the supervision of public sector leadership from EU member states. These uniform requirements would protect the intellectual property and sensitive information of users and mandate greater transparency on the part of cloud providers.

While European providers have recognized collaboration as an efficient way to deliver cloud services, the burgeoning U.S. cloud industry has spawned a host of structurally incompatible cloud systems. This fiercely competitive environment has also narrowed the range of cloud advancements by focusing on short-term cost savings realized within a single business or government agency, ignoring the potential for long-term, shared cloud initiatives.

America has much to gain from a streamlined national cloud infrastructure. Businesses, government, hospitals, and schools would be able to easily and securely share large amounts of data. Scientific researchers and the general public would have greater access to powerful computational technologies. All parties involved could enjoy the cost savings and increased capabilities of pooled and interconnected cloud resources. But before the U.S. can realize any of these benefits, the government and cloud industry must catalyze several changes.

First, the United States must adopt a forward-looking approach to cloud technology. The government should assign task forces to study the potential for integrated cloud resources shared across sectors. Like Europe, the U.S. government should publish strategic IT plans that call for greater collaboration to achieve more ambitious long-term goals.

Secondly, the government should establish national standards for U.S. cloud computing. A committee comprised of policy makers, providers, and major cloud customers could create protocols that are flexible and cost-effective enough to foster cloud development and resource sharing for years to come. The new policies must prioritize the security and privacy of data and emphasize the importance of provider transparency in protecting users’ intellectual property. Together, these measures will allow innovation to arise in secure, competitive cloud market.

Finally, Federal agencies should work with service providers and encourage industry-wide partnerships by awarding grants or special funding for projects involving multiple organizations. The government can also conduct research on how joint efforts might provide cost savings to current and future cloud initiatives.

The U.S. needs to adjust its approach to the cloud. While we have long been the leader of cloud innovation, continued success in the next era of technology may require greater teamwork and wider scope. Cloud collaboration—and the necessary security and privacy regulations that come with it—may be the extra thrust we need to launch our country into the future.

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