Is this a ‘watershed’ moment for cloud technology?

The world of business is disorientated and shaken, but tech providers have rallied quickly with safety net solutions.
23 March 2020

Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella. Microsoft Teams claimed it generated 900 million meeting minutes last week, amid a spike in remote working. Source: AFP

The technology newswires crackled to life last week as usual, but with a different tone and resonance to usual.

Aside from Oracle officially announcing the release of Java 14 – with extended availability of the low-latency Z Garbage Collector to Mac OS X and Windows (yeah, we thought you’d missed that, no disrespect to Oracle intended) – there wasn’t a whole lot of the normal ‘platform advancement’ type news that typically populates the IT news feed.

The bulk of the IT news generated this last week has, of course, been focused on what companies are doing in response to the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) outbreak. 

While a lot of the news has concentrated on tech conference cancellations and general statements of intent related to corporate responsibility, an even greater number of the announcements have concentrated on options for employees working remotely and for meetings and connections to be ‘virtualized’ i.e., held using collaboration applications such as Microsoft Teams, WhatsApp, Skype, Slack, Zoom, WebEx and others.

But are we all ready to go online to quite that degree?

Virtualization watershed

Although COVID-19 is obviously the source of many family tragedies, personal upset and huge economic upheaval, the impact of the push to working over the web may end up being something of a watershed moment for virtualized (essentially heavily cloud-based) technologies. 

That being said, there are questions that need to be asked here.

Will we really all be able to work from home as effectively as governments are urging us to attempt to? Will productivity suffer or will we find new work methods that we had previously overlooked? Will people have enough broadband connectivity to connect to the services that they need? Will the cloud networks themselves have strong enough technology backbones to shoulder the new data flows that result here?

In theory, we’re simply moving data loads from one area to another and people will still be accessing all the parts of the ‘global data backend’ (not an official term, but it should be) that they normally would if office-based.

In practice, it doesn’t necessarily work like that and Microsoft Teams reported an early outage for European customers, which the company put down to “messaging-related functionality problems” in its official statement. 

Seismic shift of data

What probably – arguably, possibly – happened at Microsoft wasn’t some huge flaw in the software behind the Teams collaboration app. More likely, the company’s cloud servers failed to adapt to the new shape of data that was being transmitted. 

Big enterprise IT data stores order, collate, stow, extract, retrieve and load information according to defined patterns, algorithmic logic and pre-provisioned planning controls. When you ask them to do something radically different, it shouldn’t be too surprising if they falter, stutter or potentially break from time to time.

What all of this means is that right now, the big cloud providers will be working to ensure they have provisioned their systems (and people) correctly for what is thought to be weeks (if not months) of different usage patterns. 

As much as the data is moving around more rapidly, the people (i.e. the data center staff) are trying to move around less. Cloud-neutral colocation datacenter services provider Interxion has provided ‘sleeping pods’ to enable some staff to sleep over and reduce the amount of interaction they have with other human beings. Quite how long these poor people can be expected to live in metal tubes is another question.

Technology philanthropy 

Independent analyst house Canalys has noted that Chinese tech companies have (where possible and in no relation to the initial source of COVID-19) stepped up to offer services to help the pandemic. 

According to senior analyst Yih Khai Wong, Alibaba Cloud offered credits to organizations to buy its Elastic Compute Service, cybersecurity and other services. It made its AI-powered platform available for free to research institutions to accelerate gene sequencing, protein screening and related work in treating and preventing coronavirus. 

Tencent Cloud also made its platform available to research teams from universities across the country. It launched Cloud Office Portfolio to support remote working, which includes Tencent Meeting and WeChat Work.  

US and Europe headquartered low-code software company OutSystems also made access to its platform free for people to attempt to develop apps that could help with the outbreak. In the first 24-hours of this initiative, 100 ideas for digital apps were submitted, including apps designed to handle medical equipment tracking, a hand-washing game, food delivery facilitation, pharmacy volunteer scheduling, and chatbots for virus FAQs.

ServiceNow followed suit. The company announced four new free of charge community apps to help its customers, including government agencies and enterprises, manage complex emergency response workflows. 

“In this battle to flatten the COVID-19 curve, none of us is as smart as all of us,” said Bill McDermott, president and CEO of ServiceNow. “These ServiceNow applications will enable emergency outreach, self-reporting and exposure management, which are precisely what organizations need to do right now to help people get through this crisis.”

Fallout effect

As the fallout of the COVID-19 Coronavirus becomes clearer, we may have learned a few things about a) healthcare b) community spirit and human nature and c) the ability for technology to not only find a cure for the disease, but also provide us with an even more connected way of working.

The cloud is no cure or antidote for COVID-19 on its own, but it can keep us connected, collaborated and coalesced. 

Now, please Skype or WhatsApp a friend and wash your hands.