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Cloud computing aims to bridge digital divide

By Pallavi Aiyar
July 12, 2010 10:54 IST

A computerIn the tech world, cloud computing is the phrase du jour, blending hippy-infused, references to the power of the 'cloud', with techno-visionary prophesies of a paradigm shift in the way humanity will interact with computing. But for the average non-geek, it remains a rather cloudy concept.

British born Indian, Sachin Duggal, 27, a World Economic Forum 2009 technology pioneer, says that a major part of the battle he and his cloud computing company Nivio fight is in fact 'unclouding' the concept itself.

"Part of our challenge is educational. We are trying to explain what we are about."

He sets up an analogy with electricity, comparing the journey electricity made towards becoming a utility with what is currently happening to computing.

"In the early days, access to electricity was only through individually bought generators, for which you had to buy oil and diesel.

"But it was realised that everyone having a generator was grossly inefficient and so we moved to a centralised supply with electricity becoming a utility.

"Now what we've got today in computing is a large box sitting on top of your desk, often on for eight hours or more a day, but actually in use for 30 per cent of that.

"So, what you have is a grossly underutilised resource. Cloud computing is about computers becoming a utility."

Duggal says if all the PCs of the world today were taken and gathered in a single place they would generate enough computing power for the needs of the entire world.

"Imagine," he says, eyes sparkling as he draws you into his cloudy utopia, "imagine never having to carry your laptop again."

What Nivio, Sachin's company, primarily offers is an online Windows desktop where Windows runs in the cloud. So, when a user clicks on the start menu of a computer, that start menu is not actually located in that machine.

It only appears as though it is.

The result is that you can work with any device connected to the Internet as though it were your own PC with full access to all your files at any time and anywhere.

The advantages of cloud computing are many. "Why did electricity become a utility?" asks Sachin. Because running a generator was costly and time consuming, requiring frequent maintenance and repair.

Similarly, running a computer today is fraught with hassles. Viruses, backups, software updates -- it's a lot for an individual to contend with, both in terms of effort and cost.

"That's why people have their bank accounts stolen or leave their personal computers susceptible to viruses. You can lose your laptop and be caught without backups. You need to keep buying software and then it expires. It's a never-ending story," says Sachin.

But if you put all your data in the cloud, these would soon be worries of yesteryear.

"The processing, storage and applications that today happen in your PC will relocate to a data centre. So, if you are a full cloud user, someone could take your PC away and give you another one and you would experience no disruption at all.

"You wouldn't have to restore from backup or anything. Your life would be fully online," explains Sachin.

Indeed, for embracers of the cloud, the whole concept of working offline would be as defunct as VHS or audio tapes. But the best of all, raves Sachin, is the egalitarian nature of cloud computing, which could be the bridge across the digital divide the world has been waiting for.

Nivio's model is based on the idea of renting software and content to people with or without a PC. A large portion of the world doesn't have a computer, explains Sachin. Of these people, some use Internet cafes, others share a single computer owned by a school or a village.

Cloud computing would allow them access to a virtual online desktop that would sim a PC. Moreover, Nivio treats software like a utility as well.

So, instead of having to pay hefty fees for it, people subscribing to Nivio can pay for software as they use it. They, thus, have access to applications that never expire and are saved the hassle and need for the technical know-how of maintaining it.

For Sachin, the ultimate aim is to marry business with social good and eventually help educate 100 million kids.

He explains that for someone running a school in a developing country, it is the total cost of purchasing a computer rather than the upfront cost of the device that matters "What's at issue is, who's going to maintain it?

"It will probably get a bunch of viruses in a week and then within a month it will be useless. No one will know how to operate it and then they'll get frustrated and not use it."

While Nivio is yet to get into the educational segment in India, it is currently running a pilot project in Jordan. And in the meantime, it offers users a set of cloud-based devices like the cloud PC and the cloud book that are very low cost, at below $200.

They run a Nivio operating system on them and connect to Windows in the cloud.

The company, which was conceived of in 2004 by a then 21-year- old Sachin and his 20-year-old college mate, Saurabh Pradeep Dhoot, has 180,000 active users in Europe, Australia and India.

Its corporate headquarters are in Switzerland, with additional offices in London, Melbourne, New Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore.

At the moment, cloud computing is largely an enterprise game, with consumers and small businesses yet to plug into it in a serious way. Yet, the cloud is spreading, with Google documents probably the most familiar cloud-based application growing in popularity and tech prophets like Steve Jobs declaring that the end of the PC era is nigh.

But promising technologies have bombed in the past and despite all the hype surrounding the cloud, serious concerns regarding its viability remain.

These are primarily related to security and privacy. Currently, data stored online have less privacy protection both in practice and under the law.

The argument is also made that the cloud makes it much easier for authoritarian regimes and governments in general to spy on their citizens.

The Chinese government, for example, is known to use the Chinese version of Skype instant messaging, amongst other software, to monitor text conversations and block undesirable words and phrases.

Nonetheless, concerns apart, the predictions for the market are robust. Quoting research firm Gartner's statistics, Sachin reveals that while the hosted desktop market was worth the "big sum of zero" in 2007, by 2009 the market had grown to $1.9 billion.

"And, wait till you hear this," he adds smiling widely, "by 2014, the figure will be $65 billion!"

Nivio is expecting to have a million clients itself by the end of the year. The majority will be from outside of India, which Sachin says is a market Nivio is currently "seeding" as a medium, rather than short-term proposition. The youngster is convinced that it's merely a question of time before the cloud prevails. 

Pallavi Aiyar in Madrid
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