GITEX 2010: Clouds in a country where it never rains

Last week Jim Murphy of Gartner and I opened up the Cloud ConfEx, an executive conference that ran as a part of the GITEX tradeshow in Dubai. Personally, I had not been in the region for the good part of 10 years, so I was very interested to see how it had developed since. Last time I was in Dubai the Burj al Arab was there and so were some of the other landmark buildings. But the artificial islands called The Palm and the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa, did not even exist as an idea back then. I went to Dubai with questions about how high the interest in cloud computing would be and what it’s potential might be in an emerging region and growing economy like the United Arab Emirates.
The initial feedback from the market research we are completing on cloud computing in emerging markets (to be published in a few weeks) shows some reluctance and apprehension towards private cloud, but a significantly higher interest in public clouds. Jim Murphy gave Dubai a 24 hour head start on the rest of the world by presenting the Cloud approach that Gartner launched to the rest of the world at their ITxpo event in Florida a day later. Prior to Jim’s presentation, I talked to the audience about how cloud can be especially beneficial for doing new things. Which means that fast growing markets, where a lot of new consumers are entering the market and new services are introduced daily, can benefit a lot more than markets where it is more about consolidation and making current services more efficient.

A valid question in this context is what this new generation of cloud services will be about. Mainframes were about (batch and OLTP) transaction processing, distributed systems were about departmental and integrated planning systems, web-systems were about e-commerce (remember when everything was called e-something?) and cloud will be about …? My feeling is cloud will be about collaboration, and with collaboration I don’t mean offering twitter or facebook clones to employees so they can waste just as much time at work as they do at home :-). I mean collaboration between multiple parties (organizations, enterprises) in global supply chains. Modern companies will not be vertically integrated like the Ford Motor company was at the beginning of the last century. They will not do ALL their design, production, distribution, planning, marketing, sales and accounting themselves. They will consume many or even most of these as services. The cloud – being internet-based by design – is ideally suited for that. In my session I went on to discuss the impact of this on traditional IT aspects like security, automation, management etc.

But back to the region… . The next day I was invited to present cloud computing at the Colleges of Higher Technology in Abu Dhabi. Abu Dhabi is the largest of the Emirates and the Colleges of Higher Technology are an important source of management talent for the region and work closely with many well-known and esteemed universities and research institutions around the world. I won’t mention the many world leaders and Nobel prize winners that taught or lectured there as I don’t want to imply I somehow would fit on that list, but it is clear the region takes higher technology education very seriously. And not just for men but also for women, our session actually took place at the Womens College, with a curriculum stimulating students to start their own companies and if needed be able to find work they can do from home. Abu Dhabi is currently planning a new state-of-the-art and very environmental friendly new campus (which is no small fact in a country where the average day temperature is above 40 degrees centigrade and where the need to save energy does not come from a lack of local natural resources.)

What is interesting is the region’s natural tendency to institute an ecosystem of service providers. The Colleges of Higher Technology provide central facilities to about 20 local colleges in addition to an international executive training program. We see the same in other types of infrastructure — there is an organization providing IT services to many of the government agencies and companies, such as the local oil and energy companies. In an economy where investing the proceeds of current economic activities into growth and future economic activities is the model, the planning of central services and aggregate providers comes natural. Not that it feels anything like the old archetypes of planned economies with their 5-year plans we know from other regions. In fact one could argue that using a provider-consumer model seems almost designed to take advantage of the cloud model.

A little example of what I mean by central services. At some point I managed to lose my suitcase in the trunk of a local taxi. While my luggage was touring the beautiful city of Dubai by itself I started a quest to retrieve it. Turns out the various taxi companies in Dubai (there are about 5, recognizable by different color roofs) all use the same dispatching service, have a joint lost and found department (conveniently located at the airport) and the location of any taxi can be tracked throughout the whole state using a combination of GPS and satellite systems. The only glitch was the fact that a call center was involved (which was as useful and helpful here as call centers anywhere else in the world), but having found a way to circumvent that and talk directly to the central services (by using the personal phone of another taxi driver) I was able to rejoin with my suitcase before leaving later that night.

As my suitcase now has seen more of Dubai than me I guess I need to go back soon. Which is not unimaginable, given the potential the region seems to have for cloud … and despite the fact it only rains about once a year.

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