In a recent eWeek interview, Citrix CTO Simon Crosby described Conficker malware as “the world’s largest cloud.” He’s right. Cybercriminals use Conficker to create massive clouds of remotely-controlled PCs capable of carrying out a variety of cyber-attacks, including DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attacks on a scale larger than any centralized cloud provider could. We tend to think about data center-based clouds with names like Infrastructure-as-a-Service or Software-as-a-Service, but the future of really big clouds looks more like Conficker’s very powerful networks of distributed PCs than like a Google data center. Seen from this perspective, Microsoft has a bigger cloud footprint than Google or Amazon.
These distributed clouds were most eloquently dubbed ambient clouds by Todd Hoff. I also wrote a long piece on these clouds for Gigaom Pro last year. Even though there is more power in ambient clouds than anywhere else, they don’t get as much attention, probably because there isn’t much of a business market for them, although criminals are happy to pay to use ambient clouds now.
Ambient clouds are harder to categorize, however, because at exactly the same time a Conficker-infected PC is participating in an ambient-cloud-based DDoS attack, it may be running a screensaver that donates compute capacity to computations designed to cure cancer or even detect alien life (depending on how cool the PC’s owner is…) In fact, Seti@home, the ambient cloud that uses donated PC processor time to search for alien life, now has about 528 Teraflops of computing capacity, which is roughly equal to one of IBM’s fastest centralized supercomputers, BlueGene.
So it seems easy to call groups of Conficker-infected devices “bad ambient clouds” and PCs doing distributed things that help others “good ambient clouds.” But what if one PC is running both Conficker and curing cancer? It’s actually a part of two clouds, the good one knowingly, the evil one unknowingly. Sort of like an angel on one shoulder, the devil on the other, but both wearing glowing blue outfits from Tron.
Trend Micro, my employer, runs an ambient cloud for security that includes more than 100 million devices. By comparison, all the centralized clouds in the world might have 50 million servers backing them. The 100 million devices that are a part of Trend Micro’s ambient cloud connect to another distributed cloud of 50,000 content delivery servers, and from there to a core centralized cloud spanning a few data centers where advanced correlation happens. Without the participation of 100 million PCs and mobile devices in this ambient cloud, Trend Micro wouldn’t be able to process the billions of URL requests it secures daily. You just can’t do what we do without using all 3 cloud architectures – centralized, distributed, and ambient.
Let’s face it: most of those 100 million PCs in Trend Micro’s ambient cloud also have dozens of other programs on them that auto-update themselves and report what they’re doing back to their central controllers. We don’t call that a botnet; we call it the modern software business. Adobe has a giant footprint on PCs. Microsoft does too. Same for Google and Apple. Every single device connected to the internet that can be remotely managed is part of at least one ambient cloud. It’s time to think about “the cloud” as a vast network of loosely coupled ambient clouds, with a few smaller centralized nodes like Amazon EC2 and Rackspace to do the work you can’t distribute remotely.
The implications for security and availability are profound, as Skype just demonstrated when its distributed ambient cloud software client failed, bringing down service for millions of people for almost a whole day. The implications for sustainability are equally profound: why build and power a new data center to do something “in the cloud” when you can do the same thing by simply controlling software on a remote device that’s part of your ambient cloud?
I just created a definitely non-quantitative comparison of some major cloud players, seen through the lens of ambient vs. centralized. Thanks to ambient clouds, there are some players you wouldn’t add to a typical cloud computing landscape. First, consider who is ahead from a centralized cloud perspective:
But if you consider who has a bigger footprint from an ambient cloud perspective, the picture is different:
You can bet that companies with a good balance of centralized and ambient will be the winners in their respective industries because they will be able to lower the cost of their infrastructure and make it faster at the same time. Microsoft, the owner of the distributed desktop OS, is racing towards centralized clouds with Azure, while Google, the king of centralized, is racing towards ambient with Chrome and Android, for instance.
The companies that achieve the right balance of centralized vs. ambient clouds are the ones that will emerge as winners as the young cloud computing industry matures. Here’s how the landscape looks when you combine ambient and centralized:
Google and Microsoft and some of the other cloud players are already at such a scale that small increases in performance or small reductions in cost can make a huge difference in profitability. Ambient clouds are the most cost effective, and in many cases the best performing. No matter which cloud provider ends up on top, every cloud-connected device you touch is a part of dozens of clouds. It’s up to you to decide which ones.
[Ed. note: Trend Micro would like to know what you think about this. We enthusiastically invite your comments and we will read every one of them. For very detailed information about Trend Micro and Security Built for Enterprise Virtualization and Cloud Environments, please visit our website: http://bit.ly/dEmlhv ]