Open Data by Mark Stone

previous: Disruptions to the Software Business

Cloud computing sounds a lot like old fashioned main frame computing. We have a large pool of centralized computing resources that can be divided up and rented out based on the computing needs of cloud computing customers. Consumers typically pay this rent in the form of advertising they view and browsing history they share (wittingly or not) with companies like Google. Businesses pay this rent in cash to companies like Amazon or In some sense the situation is not so different from my original analogy with banks and money. We either pay banks a fee, or allow them to make use of our money while idle, in exchange for the easy, on-demand access provided by a virtualized, global financial system.

There is an enormous difference, however, between depositing money with a bank and depositing data with a cloud provider. Money is completely fungible; data is not. Lock-in was one of the fears and problems with the old main frame computing model; once a business opted to house its data and attendant business logic in a main frame system, the switching cost to go to any other platform was enormous. This created a vendor lock-in that forced companies to continuing using the same systems from the same platform providers for years, or even decades.

And this is the big question about cloud computing, for both individuals and businesses. Will data that goes into the cloud be open and easily portable? Or will the choice of cloud provider be like the choice of main frame provider, with a high switching cost to get data out from that provider once it goes in?

In concrete terms, how easy will it be to move your Hotmail contact list to another webmail system, or your Google calendar to another web-based calendar system? Can you easily move your friends list from FaceBook to some place else? Businesses face the corresponding questions: how easily can an email or document archive stored with one cloud provider be moved to another? Will the cloud providers constrain choice of data base schemas or business logic in a way that makes it difficult to move an enterprise database system from one cloud provider to another?

This is a place where technology companies need to make wise decisions about the cloud platforms they offer, and pay careful attention to the success that openness has engendered in the past, and in particular to the way in which openness acts as a driver for innovation. This is also a place where government policy needs to catch up to technology. All of the talk about open government fostered by the Obama administration is great, but is meaningful only if supported by a real understanding of the ways in which open government can only be supported by open data.

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