Might the cloud prove Thomas J. Watson right after all?

In 1943 former IBM president Thomas J. Watson allegedly *1 said: “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers”. Will cloud computing prove Watson to be right after all?

Anyone who visited a computer-, internet- or mobile-conference in recent years, is likely to have been privy to someone quoting Watson. Most often to show how predicting the future is a risky endeavor. But is it? Maybe five for the world is not so crazy after all?

Now don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting there will be less digital devices in the future. In fact there will be more than we can imagine (phones, ipads, smart cars and likely several things implanted into our bodies). But the big data crunching machines that we – and I suspect Mr. Watson – traditionally think of as computers are likely to reduce radically in numbers as a result of cloud computing. One early sign of this may be that a leading analyst firm – who makes a living out of publishing predictions – now foresees that within 2 years, one fifth of business will own no IT assets*2.

Before we move on, let’s further define “computer” for this discussion. Is a rack with six blades one computer or six? I’d say it is one. Same as I feel a box (or block) hosting 30 or 30000 virtual machines, is still one computer. I would even go so far that a room with lots of boxes running lots of stuff could be seen as one computer. And let’s not forget that computers in the days of Mr. Watson were as big as rooms. So basically the proposed idea is: cloud computing may lead to “a world market with maybe five datacenters”. Whether these will be located at the bottom of the ocean (think we have about 5 of those*5), distributed into outer space to solve the cooling problem or located on top of nuclear plants to solve the power problem, I leave to the hardware engineers (typical implementation details).

Having five parties hosting datacenters (a.k.a. computers) to serve the world, how realistic is this? Not today, but in the long run, let’s say for our children’s children. It seems to be at odds with the idea of grids and the use all this computing power doing little or nothing in all these distributed devices (phones, ipads). But does that matter. Current statistics already show that a processor in a datacenter with 100.000 CPU’s is way cheaper to run than that same processor in a datacenter with 1000 CPUs. But if we take this “bigger is better” (Ough this hurts, at heart I am a Schumacher “small is beautiful” *6 fan) and apply it to other industries, companies would logically try and have one factory. So Toyota would have one car factory and Intel one chip factory. Fact is they don’t , at least not today. Factors like transport cost and logistical complexity prevent this. Not to mention that nobody would wont to work there or even live near theseand that China may be the only country big enough to host these factories (uhm, guess China may be already trying this?).

But with IT we theoretically can reduce transport latency to light speed and logistical complexity in a digital setting is a very different problem. Sure managing 6000 or 600.000 different virtual machines needs some thought (well maybe a lot of thought), but it does not have the physical limitations of trying to cram 60 different car models, makes and colors through one assembly line. If instead of manufacturing we look at electricity as a role model for IT – as suggested by Nicholas Carr – then the answer might be something like ten plants per state/country (but reducing). Now we need to acknowledge that electricity suffers from the same annoying physical transport limitations as manufacturing. It does not travel well.

So guess my question is: What is the optimal number?
How many datacenters will our children’s children need when this cloud thing really starts to fly.

  • A. 5 (roughly one per continent/ocean)
  • B. .5K (roughly the number of Nuclear power plants (439))*3
  • C. 5K (roughly 25 per country)
  • D. .5M (roughly/allegedly the current number of Google servers)*4
  • E. 5M (roughly the current number of air-conditioned basements?)
  • F. 5G (roughly the range of IP4 (4.2B))

Please post you thoughts / votes / comments below

*1 Note: Although the statement is quoted extensively around the world, there is little evidence Mr Watson ever made it http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_J._Watson#Famous_misquote
*2 http://www.gartner.com/it/page.jsp?id=1278413  
*3 http://www.icjt.org/an/tech/jesvet/jesvet.htm
*4 http://www.datacenterknowledge.com/archives/2009/05/14/whos-got-the-most-web-servers/  
*5 http://geography.about.com/library/faq/blqzoceans.htm
*6 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Small_Is_Beautiful   

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