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Cloud power

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Articles - May 2014
Monday, April 28, 2014


What might a smartphone-app developer do with thousands upon thousands of high-end computers at her disposal? What about a game designer? Or a hospital? For a growing share of businesses shifting their IT off-site, the answers are limited only by their imagination.

Often visualized as clouds hovering above all who might need them, legions of remote servers provide access to computing clout once limited to the largest companies. Take Pinterest: The photo-focused social network amassed 17 million users in just nine months, all while its staff could still fit comfortably at a backyard barbecue. Not long ago, keeping up with that traffic would have required racks of expensive new servers and the manpower to configure them. Instead, Pinterest’s entrepreneurs simply plugged into data centers owned by Amazon for a monthly fee.

The online retailer is a fitting example at the other end of this quiet revolution in computing, offering anyone with a credit card access to its data centers, which have proliferated with the growth of the company. Competitors, including Microsoft and Google, followed suit, effectively turning processors and storage into a commodity as easy to draw from as the electric grid. But what truly excites experts in cloud technology like Al Kari, CEO of DetaCloud, a Camas, Wash.-based consultancy, are the implications beyond IT.

“Anything you can think of,” Kari says, invoking Google’s driverless cars and smartphones that will someday translate speakers’ languages. “All it needs is a tiny processor onboard and an ability to transmit to the cloud.”

With yearly spending growth on cloud services consistently in the double digits, Oregon’s tech companies are positioning themselves to tap that potential.

Marketers in recent years have described practically everything that connects to the Web as cloud-based, and opinions differ on where, exactly, the cloud stops and the Internet begins. Generally speaking, the concept of cloud computing describes remote access to a shared pool of servers that store information and run programs on demand.

Software as a service — one of the cloud’s most popular iterations — has been around for 15 years. Likewise, the ability to store information and run programs remotely predates even the desktop PC. What excites technologists today about the concept of cloud computing is not its newness but its maturity. An expanding buffet of services has emerged, allowing the average non-IT-savvy business owner to set up online payments, manage thousands of client accounts, or conduct memory-intensive tasks like video rendering, business analytics or even DNA sequencing. 

Cloud BD2F8160 
Al Kari, CEO of DetaCloud and founder of
the Portland 
Open Stack meetup group 

Last year business conducted in the cloud grew by 18% and totaled $131 billion, according to Connecticut-based research firm Gartner. That broad count includes Web advertising and some automated business processes that have been in use for years. Nonetheless, earnings from Amazon point to the evolution of cloud services: The business segment that contains Amazon AWS — far and away the world’s largest provider of cloud services — saw North America sales grow between 50% and 73% annually from 2010 through 2013. In just eight years since its launch, the service has become a go-to resource for new online businesses.

“The great benefit of the cloud is scaling up rapidly or scaling down rapidly,” says Damon Slye of Mad Otter Games in Eugene. “The other benefit of the cloud is that it’s easier to use if you’re not an IT expert.”

In 1984 Slye co-founded Dynamix, spinning off a cluster of game companies in Eugene that’s alive and well today. Starting Mad Otter in 2007, his team used Amazon AWS for the back-end technical services required to deliver a game from a designer’s desktop to the screens of online players. When traffic evened out over the long term, he found he could run the company’s main title, a game called Villagers and Heroes, from four high-end servers provided by a partner company in Germany at roughly one-third the cost of Amazon. In a sense, they created their own cloud accessed by players and employees, while the company can still turn to Amazon whenever it needs extra machines for load tests. That separation of IT from the day-to-day of making games lets Mad Otter’s team of six in Eugene focus on their creative endeavors.

In a quiet office with posters from Blade Runner and Seven Samurai on the walls, Slye explains another way that digital tools sold as a service have allowed companies like his to compete. Digital tool kits known as game engines let designers apply their concepts to vast repositories of existing code that defines how an animated 3-D character and its environment interact with each other. “It would be crazy to write one from scratch,” he says.


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