The future of the cloud: no further away than your nearest gamer

The future of the cloud: no further away than your nearest gamer

Summary: Steam shows us the many possibilities of a cloud-enabled environment.


Earlier this week, my fellow ZDNet writer Steven J Vaughan-Nichols told us about how Netflix, the biggest pure cloud play, is working to build a network that exemplifies what the cloud can be. He said Netflix is looking to build a reliable delivery system that is resilient to back-end issues and can continue to deliver to its customers, even in the face of issues that in the past have brought it down. Since that story ran, I've heard from vendors who are working to deliver that same type of highly reliable delivery system so that their products will increase the comfort level of cloud users.

That's all well and good, but to me, Netflix is not a good example of the direction that cloud services will take, at least from the business side. This is because Netflix is primarily a passive service for the user. The user makes a selection, and Netflix streams that data to the user. Given the size of the data and the amount of internet traffic that Netflix generates, its level of reliability is actually pretty impressive, especially given that they are hosting on Amazon, which means it probably doesn't have the level of control over its back end that it would like (and SJVN's article talks about how Netflix looks to minimize the impact of failures on Amazon's part). But the bottom line is that Netflix is a one-way cloud service, and for the promise of the cloud to be realized, a two-way interactive experience is what will allow users to get the most from the cloud.

And the best example of what can be done with the cloud from this perspective is definitely Valve Corporation's Steam platform. If you're a gamer, you know exactly what I'm talking about. If you aren't, here's the quick rundown.

Steam is a platform for digital distribution and DRM. Users can purchase and download software (not just games anymore). The software can be used in stand-alone modes or linked into the online Steam community, where with more than 50 million users, Steam has seen usage periods where over 6 million active gamers were in concurrent games, interacting with the Steam back end and other users. There is active user support, with close to 150 million user contributions ranging from simple graphic images to full-blown game extensions written with API made available by Valve and other game manufacturers.

(Image: Screenshot by David Chernicoff/ZDNet)

Client support includes Windows, OS X, Linux, and mobile operating systems. The overall interface includes software distribution, interactive gaming, software licensing and management, the ability to access product from multiple platforms, an open API for development (Steamworks), social networking, and integration with content that is not Steam specific that the user may already own. The service updates itself and purchased applications, if configured to do so, transparently to the user, assuring them of the most up-to-date experience.

The environment does require downloads to the user's computer, but that doesn't make it any less of a successful cloud-based application service. The size of most games makes download on the fly while playing impractical, a situation that would conceivably be resolved by future improvements in internet bandwidth, but, for most users, that would not be an issue. And in many ways, that's a positive for many people who see that they can still use their applications even if they currently have no internet connection.

Looking at the entire Steam ecosystem gives one a good idea of what the future of cloud computing may bring, with a richly interactive environment that allows millions of users to simultaneously interact with each other, work on their own projects, and be able to transport their environment with them regardless of where they may need to be. And that makes the promise of a cloud future a more realistic and attractive one.

Topic: Cloud

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • thought

    "The environment does require downloads to the user’s computer, but that doesn’t make it any less of a successful cloud-based application service. "

    No indeed it doesn't. Yet, for some odd reason people seem to think the "cloud" must remove all traces of downloading whatsoever, as if it were a poison of some sort. I'm not sure why there's a huge obsession with getting rid of downloads, even though most devices have plenty of storage capacity.

    The ability to work (or in this case, play) offline - is that such a horrible thing? Why must some people be so bent on destroying it?
    • RE: Thoughts

      @CobraA1 wrote: "The ability to work (or in this case, play) offline - is that such a horrible thing? Why must some people be so bent on destroying it?"

      Its because of Piracy, and the Myth that you can quantify the theft of a digital product the same way you and quantify the theft of a physical product. Physical products, like game discs sitting on the shelf at GameStop, have tangible value. It cost money for the store to obtain that stock, and the theft of just one of those boxes can be quantified on their financial records as a loss. Physical products are also known as Scarce Goods. You cannot do this with Digital Downloads. You cannot treat them like Scarce Goods without treading down the slippery slope of "financial fraud". A digital download is a infinite resource, a copy downloaded from a server is an exact copy of that file. The original file on the server doesn't disappear when you download it. Thus, its an Infinite Resource, and you cannot quantify the theft of an infinite resource as a loss financially. You didn't loose anything with tangible value, its not a physical object that can be stolen in the same way.

      Thus, when the RIAA and MPAA publish inflated reports of how much money they've lost from the illegal downloading, they are in essence committing a form of financial fraud. They are claiming to have incurred losses for a product that is infinite and not in scarce supply. They are created the illusion of scarcity in justify the creation of inflated financial numbers in order to pressure lawmakers into making copyright laws more draconian. Its this mentality that has gotten us to this point with bad or vague patents stifling innovation, and copyrights being used to bully competitors and empower legal extortion.
  • This was my first cloud expeireince

    I have been a player of Half life for years. And when Steam was first introduced I thought it was a very interesting concept. As I later learned about "Cloud computing" I realized that Steam was my first real cloud experience and that they had done this for a while now. It does work well. I have changed out computers many times, logged into Steam and there are all my games I am able to download and start playing within 30 minutes.
  • Just Wait

    Just wait until Valve releases their long-rumored hardware.
  • the real cloud nature of steam

    Something that I've only noticed in the last year or so with the steam games I play, is that they've finally implemented cloud *saves*.
    It used to be that they wereonly game binary delivery services. Oh, and chat and "achievement" bragging points. But now, with net synchronized saves, it really feels like a "cloud" service. Play a game on one computer, then go steam-install it on another one, and you will automatically pick up from your last save.
    Not available on all games of course, but for the ones it is enabled on, it's quite nice. In a multi-computer home, it reduces the need for squbbling over who gets which computer, if you dont want to be bothered setting up a personal fileserver, and being an in-home sysadmin.
    Phil Brown