Cloud Vs. Tough Problems From Business To Weather

ZipCar founder Robin Chase and other Cloud Connect 2013 speakers explain how cloud can help solve pressing world problems.
Robin Chase, founder of ZipCar, told attendees at Cloud Connect 2013 in Chicago that the human race must reorganize around the means provided by cloud computing and social networking to better utilize resources to solve pressing world problems.

Chase spoke in Tuesday's opening keynote session to argue that human activity in recent history has consisted of individuals spending part of their week working for a company, then acting as a consumer for the rest of the time. Now those roles are beginning to merge as consumers gain the social networking and feedback mechanisms to react to their consumer experiences. Their reactions in turn influence the course of the companies around them. She refers to her ideas, which focus on individuals acting without waiting for their governments, as "cooperative capitalism" involving businesses that share "excess capacity" in the hands of individuals.

Chase is a former CEO of ZipCar, a city car rental business based on frequent, short-term car rentals, which in some cases substitute for owning a car. She also founded GoLoco, a local ride-sharing service, where the driver opens up empty seats to other riders headed in the same direction. She also launched Buzzcar in France, under which individuals rent their autos to strangers. It's grown into a business that lists 7,000 vehicles of "different attributes, available at different price points," she said.

A recent user of the service told her that he rented a car to vacation on an island off the coast, and its owner included personal impressions of the best beaches, views and restaurants. "That's an individual- to-individual transaction that you can't get standing at the counter at Hertz, or at ZipCar," she noted.

[ Want to learn more about the value of virtual organizations built on social nets? See VMware Execs Talk Virtualized Networks And Visibility. ]

The connectedness of individuals through cloud computing, social networking and the Internet will change how future business is conducted, she said. InterContinental hotels spent 60 years growing into a chain that listed a total of 645,000 rooms. Airbnb grew into an organization of individual building owners with 650,000 rooms to rent in four years.

Chase is behind Peers Inc., a system to foster small-scale projects, short-term efforts and delivery of small services. The goal is to see how much can be accomplished through companies and individuals banding together.

She is on the board of the World Resources Institute, and she concluded her talk with a warning about global warming. New organizations and new ways of doing things at existing organizations may soon be necessary to deal with it, she warned.

She said that projecting existing trends forward shows that, within her expected lifetime, temperatures could rise worldwide by seven degrees centigrade. That means temperatures on most land locations will rise enough that much of the world will become uninhabitable for humans, she said.

"You can't solve exponential problems with linear solutions," she warned, and predicted it will take still undiscovered means of sharing resources and employing social networking to reverse the global warming trend.

Chase was followed by Paul Walsh, weather analytics VP of the Weather Channel, who said his company will soon launch a new set of weather information satellites that will be able to inspect one-half kilometer areas of the atmosphere "every 30 minutes," greatly improving the prospects of accurate weather forecasting.

Already, the predictions on hurricanes made three days in advance today are as good as the predictions made one day in advance in 1990. Last year's forecast that Hurricane Sandy would move up the coast and make a left turn into New Jersey proved all too accurate, he noted.

"We sit on a ton of data," he noted, and weather researchers and other types of scientists may be better able to make use of it in the future. People in Pakistan and Bangladesh are better protected from tidal surges and floods during monsoon season because they get more advance warning and carry cellphones on which a major segment of the population receives the warning. A flood 15 years ago in that part of the world killed 15,000. A similar cyclone occurred earlier this year but "very few were killed" by it, he said.

Also during Tuesday's keynotes, Narayan Desai, principal experimental systems engineer at Argonne National Lab south of Chicago, said the Magellan Project has made a half-million core, cloud-like cluster available to users of the lab. Desai said use of that cluster helps answer the question: What good is cloud computing?

While the lab works on energy physics, nuclear weapon effects and other scientific research, the main users of the lab's OpenStack cloud are bioinformatics researchers pursuing information on plant, animal and human genomes. Unlike most clouds that use commodity Ethernet switches to connect one node to another, the Magellan cloud uses Infiniband, up to four times faster than a 10-Gbps Ethernet switch.

Constructing the Magellan cloud was relatively easy using OpenStack, he said, because the OpenStack software "was built from a pragmatic place. Design decisions were made for it in a pragmatic way. The original authors (at NASA and Rackspace) had a system to run" and the software needed to supply services after it was implemented, he said.

The result is that bioinformatics researchers quickly build their own prototypes of systems that can help them handle masses of data in their research. Easing the task of "pathfinding," or finding a way to use the compute resource to further their work, is aided by OpenStack's self-provisioning for end users "It's hard to predict where your users will be" when it comes to making large-scale computing available to them. "It's important to experiment. OpenStack's flexibility allowed us to design the right system," he said.

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