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By Eric Tsui, Professor, Hong Kong Polytechnic University
F or the past 10-15 years, we have seen a steady rise in the adoption of cloud computing in industry and academia. Cloud is truly a revolutionary concept. According to the US National Institute of Standards and technology, “Cloud Computing is a model for enabling convenient, on demand network access to shared pool of configurable computing resources that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management efforts or service provider interaction.” Broadly interpreting this definition would lead to the following characteristics of a cloud – on-demand and self-service, rapid and robust elasticity, resource pooling, metered and postpaid charging model. Early cloud adopters in the last decade typically shifted their archiving, email, backup and disaster recovery services to the cloud. While the long term costs of the cloud is indeed more economical than self-hosted hardware and software remains to be decided as this depends on a wide range of factors which are unique for each installations, nevertheless moving applications to the cloud have greatly simplified efforts in software installation upgrades/patches, license management and device/network management. Many organisations have indeed leveraged on these and more to achieve gains in workforce productivity and data/application integrations. More recently, cloud services like web conferencing and process management further enable especially distributed organisations access to these services on a pay-per-usage basis as well as having the benefit of one centrally managed uniformed type of software for each type of enterprise application.
Despite the commonly known concerns about cloud computing including security, data privacy, data storage compliance requirements, reliability, uniformity of cloud management tools etc., there is little doubt that cloud adoption will continue into the future despite varying levels and types of adoption by various industries.
Are there more things we can leverage from a cloud especially from a services perspective? One key critical success factor for organisations in the pursuit of service innovation is its “dynamic capabilities” (which is the ability to tap into various types of resources, not just IT resources and not limited to resources possessed by the organization). This is where the cloud sheds new light and takes organisations and our society to new dimensions in expertise sourcing, task fulfillment, innovation and learning.
“Despite the commonly known concerns about cloud computing including security, data privacy, data storage compliance requirements, reliability, uniformity of cloud management tools etc.”
To appreciate and exploit the above capabilities offered by a cloud, we need to reframe our view about cloud computing. Most people consider the cloud as a gigantic pool of computing resources that can be flexibility provisioned and accessed with reliability from any location, any time and any devices. This is certainly true. However, all large scale clouds must also be operating with a huge arrange of applications serving millions of users or more. Take social media applications for example, all the popular/successful social media applications are powered by a cloud; by default, these applications facilitate bi-directional flow of data and information hence highly interactive in nature.
Hence, it is natural to deduce that for any successful cloud, it is really a “knowledge cloud” encompassing not only stored data/information, software, hardware and computer networks but also “connections” and a huge amount of data (both in terms of storage as well as speed by which such data are accumulating). In particular, there are three types of connections in a cloud – machine to machine (i.e. hardware and software connections and linkages), people to machine (represented by the user account each person signs up for each of the applications hosted in the cloud) and people to people (represented by people’s connections like peers, fans, followers etc. especially in social and professional networking software). These connections and data, in addition to the basic cloud infrastructure, equip the cloud to be an “intelligent centre offering dynamic knowledge services with massive data and problem solving skills (processors and human beings).” Researchers have predicted that by 2020 there will be 60 billion connections in the cloud; a conservative estimate for today there are already more than 14 billion connections in the cloud).
More than 6,000 startups, mostly in Americas and Europe, are offering knowledge services in the cloud. Web sites like Fiverr, Elance and Livework allow user to source expertise and farm out specific tasks to selective provider(s). They represent a new breed in workforce management and expertise sourcing and are sometimes referred to as “HR in the Cloud”, “Cloud Labour”. Quora is a public forum that helps to attract quality answers by allowing the users to selectively push a question, often with incentives for attracting good responses, to either a general audience or a group of experts in the field. Kaggle readies teams of statistical and modeling experts to take on complex research tasks needed by organisations; they provide the tools as well as offer collaboration software for customers to view the progress and provide input to each and every task in the project.
Here at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, we are leveraging on cloud services (including public, private, and hybrid clouds) to support teaching and learning, as well as research. More specifically, we use the above-mentioned services for design of seminars flyers, logos and posters. Our Learning Management System is delivered via a cloud service and we offer virtual desktop infrastructure to support student projects that need shared licenses; we launch our Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) on the MIT edX cloud and “cloud-source” case studies from learners worldwide then enhance these submitted cases as teaching materials. We are applying big data algorithms to early detect those students who need help in an enrolled course as well as explore the effectiveness of various teaching methods and pedagogies on student learning outcomes. We also leverage on the public cloud to help students, teachers, graduates and practitioners to configure a customizable Personal Learning Environment and Network (PLE&N) on various topics to support peer based social and lifelong learning.
Leveraging on the cloud, the sky is the limit.
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