The Power of the Cloud

Illustration: Marco Goran Romano  

We often place more faith in technology than in ourselves. After all, we constantly turn to our smartphones to give us answers—sometimes without even having to ask a question. We get instant real-time traffic updates, recommendations for cool bars nearby, and help organizing our schedules. We might request these things from a virtual assistant like Siri or Amazon’s Alexa, but the information really comes from the cloud.

Thanks to the data-rich environment we live in and a serious lack of physical storage capacity on our mobile devices, cloud computing has grown extraordinarily in the past few years. From app-happy consumers to businesses juggling their customers’ ever-increasing data demands, cloud-based storage solutions are not only the best option for now, but they’re also changing what we can expect from the technology we keep so close. Because of the cloud, activities like gaming will become more complex, shopping savvier and more targeted, and individual health monitoring more sophisticated. It’s transforming how we connect to the world at large—and how we make decisions.

Cloud computing, and the technological advancements it requires, means we collect more data than ever before, and the systems we use to analyze all of that information are becoming smarter about making it more meaningful. Think of the cloud as a new form of electricity that transforms raw power—in this case, data—into prescriptive knowledge. Algorithms in our fitness trackers don’t just tell us how many calories we’ve burned, but what other actions are needed to achieve our fitness goals. Ambient data in the cloud tells us which song we’ll like before we’ve even heard it. Even the dating app Tinder relies on a matchmaking algorithm that uses data it collects from users. And the Intelligence of Things™ is a top contributor to this influx of information.

“The Intelligence of Things™ is going to create a huge data tsunami,” says Dharmesh Jani, vice president of Cloud Strategy and Operations at Flex. “All of that data has to get stored somewhere.”

The shift from data stored on individual hard drives to vast amounts of instantly accessible information housed elsewhere might be an afterthought to us as consumers. But in reality, we experience the effects of both cloud integration and growth of the infrastructure every day.

“You’re getting email and everything else through the cloud, so what we’re seeing now is software as a service,” says Kevin Hart, vice president of product marketing for Ciii, Flex’s software-infrastructure and cloud-storage unit. He says public cloud storage, the kind popularized by such companies as Amazon and Google, has streamlined the old model. “Traditionally you had your own internal network, your own servers, your own storage, which you backed up even though most people never did. That’s all been replaced by the cloud and an iPad.”

The growth of the cloud has not only contributed to making hard drives go the way of the floppy disk, it’s spurring advancements in other areas. Hart predicts there will be a massive number of smart devices in the world by 2020—all of which are going to be connected to the cloud. But for intelligent decisions to be made using the data those devices produce and gather, an underlying infrastructure is needed.

These technologies allow us to bring life-changing information into developing countries faster and at a lower cost, says Hart.

According to estimates by Cisco, global cloud traffic will reach 8.6 zettabytes (more storage space than 2 trillion DVDs) by the end of 2019. That’s more than quadruple the traffic in late 2015. Eventually, 5G networks that are currently in development will be required to give consumers the lag-free experience they demand for something as simple as streaming video or as complex as self-driving cars or remote surgical operations.

And cloud access made possible through a low-latency, high-speed network will become the new norm. Because if data is the currency of global business, it’s going to need a bank that’s always open and can handle a lot of traffic.

“The cloud is driving a paradigm shift in product and market solutions, and it’s accelerating,” says Caroline Dowling, president of Communications Infrastructure and Enterprise Computing at Flex. “Engineering, design, and product demands for cloud computing have grown significantly over the past few years…. Flex has had to adapt its product design and portfolio to deliver open and flexible solutions to the market.”

According to a global cloud-networking survey by Cisco, when given the choice to use the cloud for only one application, 25% of users would choose storage over email, enterprise resource planning, and collaboration. And the universal importance placed on storage capacity is leading to increased investment in the cloud: A report from Global Industry Analysts predicts that the worldwide market for cloud computing services will reach $127 billion by 2017.

In another study, EMC predicted that in just four years, there will be about 40 trillion gigabytes stored in the cloud—the equivalent of 5,200 gigabytes for every person in the world. With those kinds of numbers, it’s no wonder businesses are starting to take the cloud seriously.

Cisco, HP, IBM, and Mirantis are some examples. Flex is working with each of them to design and utilize both private and hybrid cloud solutions, the latter of which combines both public and private services to ensure the appropriate balance between ease and security. RightScale, a cloud portfolio management service, found that 82% of enterprises have a hybrid cloud strategy as of last year.

Hart says that beyond public consumer usage, enterprise IT is also moving to cloud-based models. He notes that many companies see the benefits of using an original design manufacturer to deal with their storage needs: lower costs and greater expertise. In the past, large companies had to deal with the chain of command that comes from deploying upwards of 20 data centers around the world. Now, data supply solutions can be centralized and stored safely by a single entity like Flex.

“Why the cloud?” asks Hart. “Because it offers the lowest cost, scalable, most elastic solution today.” But there’s a caveat. Companies that offer free unlimited storage capabilities for content such as photos and videos to attract customers will run into scaling issues. While storage may be free for customers, there are still associated costs on the companies’ end—and often that money isn’t regained through the main products they sell.

Engineering, design, and product demands for cloud computing have grown significantly over the past few years…. Flex has had to adapt its product design and portfolio to deliver open and flexible solutions to the market, Dowling says.

Flex’s Jani believes that the big data analytics that spring from advanced organizational cloud infrastructure could lead to the emergence of revolutionary new business models. “Just look at Uber and Airbnb, which have disrupted taxi and hotel services [respectively],” he says. “These companies could not have existed without the infrastructure for iPhones and Android phones. [The IoT and cloud storage] are going to lead to the same sort of disruption.”

Even the most traditional industries can’t deny the promise of the cloud. Take agriculture, Hart says: “Using the Internet of Things, you can see immediately how much water to use, when to plant, how much to plant, what type of fertilizer to put down...if you think about it, these technologies allow us to bring life-changing information into developing countries faster and at a lower cost, because the underlying influence of the cloud is already global.” And this worldwide information exchange can help us realize the full potential of the data we create.

With all the strides to be taken in the next few years, the cloud will play a central role in the future of computing. As consumers and corporations gear up for a new era in connectivity, Hart cites a favorite quote often attributed to science-fiction luminary William Gibson: “The future is already here—it’s just not evenly distributed yet.”