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.
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.