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A better connected world

The more we connect, the better our world

This eight part series will reveal how cutting-edge technology is changing the way we conduct our lives and connect with the world around us

  • Data Connectivity
  • A Better Connected World

DATA – Connecting lives through the cloud

Increasingly, every action in our digital lives has a reaction, and leaves a data trail. But this rising tide of data must be harnessed if the information it reveals is to be of lasting value. New cloud-computing platform OpenStack provides smarter ways to handle ‘big data’. Companies like Chinese tech firm Huawei are using it to revolutionise the digital landscape so our data can be used to improve services and transform lives.

In April, CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, will re-start its Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the 27-kilometre underground accelerator ring it uses to smash together protons and reveal the secrets of the universe. Last time out, through its discovery of the elusive Higgs boson, massive detectors in the LHC ring collected data at a rate of one petabyte per second. This is big data, on a grand scale.

When it hits ‘go’ in April, the LHC will run at almost twice the energy it did first time out, and capture twice as much data. To handle this new workload, CERN has shifted its computer systems onto OpenStack, an open source cloud operating system that enables businesses to run programmes on huge numbers of computers in public and private clouds from a single web interface.

“For the second run of the LHC, we needed to find a way for existing staff to manage twice the number of machines,” says Tim Bell, head of operating systems and infrastructure at CERN. “We needed a way to get the same number of people to do twice as much work.”

CERN’s IT requirements are extreme, of course, and do well to make specific this concept of ‘big data’. But while they are ‘big’, they are not particularly varied – insofar as they are of a single institution, for a single pursuit. “Big data is the future because of the Internet of Things,” remarks Curt Beckmann, chief technology officer at US data storage provider Brocade. “In the future, there will be such a diverse array of devices and technology providing huge volumes and many layers of information.”

With the emergence of this so-called ‘Internet of Things’, binding society through a web of inter-connected devices, almost every action and interaction will produce data. People, services and infrastructure will combine to create reams of information with significant personal, commercial and social value.

“You know, one FitBit tells you something about the individual wearing it but, when everyone is wearing them, it will create vast ‘meta-awareness’,” says Beckmann, citing the popular fitness tracker brand, whose wristband devices monitor your movement via built-in GPS and motion sensors. “Just as Google can use Big Data to estimate the spread of a flu virus based on global queries [in its search engine], the information gained from the Internet of Things will be tremendously powerful.”

For its protagonists, cloud computing presents a highly efficient solution to the varied big-data demands of the Internet of Things, just as it does for the isolated big-data processing at CERN. OpenStack is arguably the most flexible architecture with which to deploy and organise these cloud computing resources.

Community work

Like Android for mobile phones and Linux for personal computing, with which it shares its open-source principles, OpenStack is tipped to become the default system for virtualised computing, networking and data storage. Set up by NASA and US cloud provider Rackspace in 2010 as a scalable, free-to-use alternative to the closed systems available from the likes of Amazon, its brand and governance has since transferred to the OpenStack Foundation and its popularity has jumped.

At last count, it claimed 3,000 developers, 20,000 foundation members and over 20 million lines of code. There were 90 sponsors and 5,000 delegates at the last OpenStack Summit in Paris last month, its first European jaunt. CERN is perhaps its most celebrated proponent, but blue chip users such as BBVA, BMW and Time Warner Cable also took the stage. “Open source software is eating the world,” says Van Lindberg, vice president of technology at Rackspace and OpenStack board member.

Every company – regardless of whether it’s managing networks, inventory or burgers – is profoundly affected by software. It is driving their productivity, service and growth.
Van Lindberg

“Linux is the most deployed operating system on the planet, and OpenStack is on an even faster trajectory. Every company – whether it’s managing networks, inventory or burgers – is profoundly affected by software. It is driving productivity and growth. More data requires more computing resources and better ways to harness them. OpenStack provides this ability to orchestrate computing resources in the cloud. You just turn on the tap, and computing power is there; just like water or electricity.”

The OpenStack Foundation has fostered an organic, populist movement based around the principles of free software and shared resources. “In the medium term, most companies will move to cloud computing, and most of these cloud systems will be powered by OpenStack,” says Lindberg. “More than any other, it has the permissive licensing model and broad community adoption that will allow it to flourish.”

Its success depends on technologists collaborating for the common good to improve its code and application – to ensure an efficient upgrade cycle, to eliminate bugs in good time and to bring down the cost of implementation. Its developer community is considered one of its most resounding successes.

“As a product, as a set of technological components, it is building momentum,” says Laurent Lachal, senior analyst at Ovum. “But as a project and a brand, it has already achieved more than that. In terms of the community, it is a fabulous success. It’s a very good reflection of both the success of open source and of cloud. Because, basically, it has gone from nothing to an extremely large and vibrant ecosystem and community in a little over four years.”

Data networking

In OpenStack, traditional hardware vendors are also finding a voice and ways to draw competitive advantage. Among these, Chinese tech firm Huawei, a gold member of the OpenStack Foundation, sees OpenStack as a way to bolster its cloud division and go beyond provision of traditional mobile network infrastructure and devices.

Huawei’s cloud computing solutions underpin 120 data centres across 42 countries, it says; its customers include Vodafone, Phoenix Satellite Television and the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Education, among others. Its OpenStack R&D team has grown from 500 to 600 engineers in the past 12 months; it says it ranks second among members for submission of OpenStack blueprints.

Notably, Huawei sees OpenStack as a means to establish itself as a cloud provider of choice in Europe. In Paris, Huawei cited higher education as a candidate market for these new cloud services, confirming Northumberland College as its first partner in the sector. Indeed, Huawei claims its FusionSphere 5.0 platform, based on OpenStack, is a highly scalable cross-market solution for businesses of any size, enabling them to bridge the gap between legacy systems and the new world of cloud computing.

At the larger end, mobile operator Telefónica has deployed FusionSphere 5.0 to modernise its entire network infrastructure. The project, dubbed UNICA, will see Telefónica shift much of its physical resources into the cloud, enabling its regional teams to harness software-defined data centre resources to implement and manage new platforms and services more efficiently.

“With our deep understanding of telecoms, we can provide a customised solution based on open cloud infrastructure to make businesses more agile and efficient,” says Wang Haiying, chief technology officer for cloud computing at Huawei.

“Telefónica will be able to reduce the time it takes to launch new services, and thereby associated operational and maintenance costs. The infrastructure can rapidly allocate cloud computing resources so that new services can be deployed in minutes, rather than days, which is typical in traditional IT environments.”

By virtualising resources in this way, through open-source systems and software defined networking, communications providers like Telefónica will in the next years play a central role in managing the connectivity of the Internet of Things, gathering metadata from all kinds of newfangled devices for analysis and information in remote computers in the cloud. This is the future, where the minutiae of our digital lives is monitored by smart devices on our person, in our homes and workplaces, and throughout our services infrastructure; where the data trail its leaves is in turn used to construct a responsive digital ecosystem that transforms how we live and work.

“In the longer term, as more and more devices include both sensors and embedded processors, we will see a rise in ad-hoc data analysis that will go on all around us,” says Lindberg. “Cloud computing will become ‘omnipresent computing’ – and Big Data will become ‘omnipresent data’.”

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A series exploring innovations in technology that are keeping our world connected