It has been called the “way of the future” and “the second industrial revolution”. Even “the fifth utility”, after electricity, water, telecommunications and gas.
But while most people know it as “the cloud”, a global network of high-powered server farms that host data and services online, there is no doubt that the potential offered by cloud computing will increasingly change how the world works.
Technology consultants IDC, predict that by 2020, nearly 40% of the information in our digital universe will be "touched" by cloud computing providers at some point in its journey. Already, according to a study by networking corporation Cisco, by 2015 global cloud computing traffic will have increased twelve-fold compared to 2010.
Internet users – from businesses to individuals – with cloud technology can access all the programs, platforms and infrastructure they need, even from small, handheld devices, like their mobile phones. And it is this difference that’s powering one of the biggest changes in the developing world.
Companies, organisations and governments using the technology can circumvent what has, until now, been a major barrier to progress: poor infrastructure.
Whereas formerly, especially in rural areas, problems with infrastructure have hindered everything from local governance to trade, cloud technology is now driving new job opportunities, better schooling and entirely new economies in the developing world.
The University of Addis Ababa, in Ethiopia, is one such beneficiary of cloud technology. With around 50,000 attending students, access to computers is often limited, and the PC hardware itself can be low-powered and slow. As computers are distributed in classrooms, libraries, and offices across 14 campuses, maintenance and upgrades to these computers are inevitably expensive and time-consuming for IT support technicians.
Moreover, with local electricity supply unreliable at best, regular fluctuations and blackouts meant that students’ work was often lost without warning.
However, a desktop cloud system installed late last year by the global information and communications technology company Huawei allowed each university computer a “virtual machine”, running no applications and instead allowing users to access programs and teaching materials from central servers.
The result not only improved PC maintenance efficiency and reduced technician costs, but enabled teachers to place educational materials online. Students’ coursework was also saved onto the cloud, allowing them to access documents from anywhere on campus, and even at home. By placing time limits on the virtual machines, it also enabled more students to use the limited computer equipment, increasing PC use from 10% to 61%.
In China, a school for blind children was given a similar boost after new cloud servers, also donated by Huawei centralised the school’s programs, audiobooks and teaching aids, allowing students to access them from home using their own computers which saved time and travel costs.
“[Students] can now easily surf on the Internet, read articles, or even develop complex programs, without using the mouse or even display,” says Huawei Cloud Computing Product Manager, Jon Zhang.
Connecting a continent
Adding further traction to the technology’s uptake has been the rapid expansion of the telecommunications industry. According to World Bank data, over the last five years Africa’s mobile phone market, for example, has grown to over 650 million subscribers – larger than that of either the EU or the US.
Central to this has been the proliferation of cheap “feature phones”. According to advertising experts BuzzCity, 88% of the Kenyan population use these trimmed down smartphones, for example, while in Nigeria, the figure is 89%.
Battery-powered and, of course, portable, the phones have become lifelines for poor communities; innovators have found ways to use them as mobile banks, business development tools and mapping devices. Crucially, it means developing nations, many of which never created a functioning wired infrastructure in the first place, can jump straight to mobile and cloud supported systems without the conversion or replacement costs faced by Western countries.
“The internet and mobile phones are transforming the development landscape in Africa, injecting new dynamism in key sectors,” says Jamal Saghir, World Bank Director for Sustainable Development in the Africa Region. “The challenge is to scale up these innovations and success stories for greater social and economic impacts across Africa over the next decade.”
Not business as usual
Cloud technology is also driving a new wave of entrepreneurialism in the developing world. One example is Cheki, an online used car classifieds service based in Kenya. It now boasts over one million users across Kenya, Nigeria, Malawi, Rwanda and Ethiopia, and receives over a billion page views each month.
Much of Cheki’s success lies in the cloud. The entire website is hosted on Amazon Web Services servers based in the US and Europe - and most of Cheki’s users do not access the site with a desktop computer, but via $70 Android smartphones.
Elsewhere in Africa, it’s a similar story. M-Pesa, the mobile payments division of Kenya’s largest mobile phone provider Safaricom, also uses Amazon Web Services - as does Jobberman, the largest careers website in Nigeria. And such developments are not limited to Africa; in India, an online nationwide cab-booking service called Getmecab similarly utilises Amazon servers based in Singapore.
Yet while the cloud is being used in new and more innovative applications, there are still challenges. Many growing economies, such as India and Zambia, still have strict data sovereignty laws, meaning cloud-based services have to be kept within the country’s borders. This can restrict the flow of data and hinder trade.
Moreover, developing countries still lag behind in people with access to broadband. A 2013 report from UNCTAD (the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development) found that there are more than 28 broadband subscriptions per 100 people in developed economies, but only six in developing countries - and only 0.2 in the least developed countries (LDCs).
But for now, there is no doubt that as a technology, cloud computing is levelling the economic playing field. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon states in the preface to the UNCTAD report: "This [cloud computing] has considerable potential for economic and social development… and to define a bold agenda for a prosperous, sustainable and equitable future."
The Huawei FusionCloud solution supports architectures of vertical and horizontal integration, as well as a variety of terminals, allowing enterprises and traditional data centres to simplify their IT infrastructures and build business value. FusionCloud converts traditional data centres into highly simplified, standardised, automated, and elastic cloud data centres. The IT support system backed by FusionCloud transforms from a costly factor to an engine that drives core service development.