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Old technologies struggle to meet new demands

FOR MILLENNIA, human progress has been powered by consecutive waves of accelerating technology characterised by the ‘logistic’ or ‘S’ curve. Each new technology starts slowly, but grows exponentially and then ‘tops out’ to be replaced by the next wave.

WWII was powered by the thermionic tube (valve) and electromagnetic devices in radios, radar and sonar, as well as computational engines for encryption. But none of it could scale to feed a growing demand after the war and it was all eclipsed by the transistor.

This story of growth may appear relatively new, but it also applies to security and networks. The visual telegraph (smoke, flags and lights) was eclipsed by the electric telegraph, which in turn was eclipsed by the telephone, and so on. Telegraph systems could not scale to meet demand because they needed trained operators and expensive electromechanical devices, but telephones could be operated by everyone.

Telephone systems could not scale to meet the demand for a device in every pocket, hand and handbag, nor could they meet the needs of a more mobile society that needs to do far more than talk – where people need to connect and access data and services online and on the move.

Digital mobile 3G & 4G cannot scale to meet the need for data transfers, and mobile working and WiFi connections now carry about 98% of all data on the internet. How come? To deliver what they promise, 3G & 4G would need up to ten times more cell sites and no company can afford that – and no society is likely to sign off on the visual intrusion. So in the UK all the mobile operators offer free, or very low-cost, WiFi accounts with roaming agreements to encourage users to offload data as much as possible.

The internet cannot scale to meet the needs of a fully connected world. Even nine billion people-owned mobiles will be hard to support, never mind more than fifty billion (and possibly far more) things online. Power supplies, storage and transmitter energy levels limit such a future. Clouds, on the other hand, offer a solution through shorter transmission ranges and reduced hardware complexity, cost and energy use.

Consider a freeway. Is it feasible, or desirable, to have each car, bus and truck communicating with some central database through 3/4G, or would it be better, and far more practicable, to have information travel from vehicle to vehicle in real time? Accidents, breakdowns or road works could thus be ‘telegraphed’ rapidly at minimal cost. And speed control and rerouting would occur seamlessly and safely. No centralised system could achieve this on a national road network basis. During the entire transaction history, only a few vehicles would have to resort to any central reference, while the rest could share. This minimises energy and economic cost, which is often an unrecognised feature of the cloud.

All of the above is more than a euphemism for clouds of people, devices, wearables and the future working environment. Already, those at the leading edge employ bluetooth-based clouds for group working with just one conduit (machine) to the internet through the cloud. Compared to the predominant mode of every machine being online via 3/4G or WiFi, far less energy is necessary. And these savings are amplified when file exchanges are confined to this very local cloud model.

This sets the scene for cutting the last wire – the power cord. When we scale down to micro-watts per device, near-field charging of devices finally becomes feasible. Unseen benefits include greater integration, the removal of all connectors, and far more compact and flexible designs.

The cloud was never singular; it was always plural: millions of clouds, and not one big cloud. Nor was it solely about networking. It embraces the green agenda through the maximal usage of materials and products at minimal energy, and that includes clouds, computing, communication and personal devices, too. ?

Peter Cochrane is an IT consultant and former chief technologist at BT

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