An Indian Perspective on Cloud Computing

A new conference shows that emerging markets have additional advantages and challenges when deploying new IT systems

12 November 2012

blog_romero Photo: Josh Romero

Joshua J. Romero is an associate editor at IEEE Spectrum, currently reporting on technology from Bangalore, India.

The cloud has flattened IT the way networks flattened the world,” said Cisco’s Vice President of Engineering Vivek Mansingh, during the panel discussion at the first-ever Cloud Computing in Emerging Markets conference. Held on 11 and 12 October in Bangalore, India, the new IEEE event focused on how countries like India can harness the distributed nature of cloud computing to fuel economic growth, build new businesses, and even help close the digital divide. Conference speakers focused on the unique challenges that cloud providers need to consider in India, as well as opportunities that don’t exist in more established markets.

One of the most obvious challenges embracing cloud computing in emerging markets is the lack of dependable infrastructure. With the grid subject to intermittent power outages, data center operators are forced to rely on expensive diesel fuel to run backup generators. And to have access to data anytime, anywhere, dependable networks are a prerequisite.

Some companies are using these infrastructure challenges to spur new innovation. For example, at IBM’s Bangalore office, a small group of employees have added rooftop solar panels to provide high-voltage DC power to their own data center. In established markets, such solar installations might take a decade or more to pay for themselves. But in India, where diesel power continues to go up in cost and solar power is subsidized, the solar system can pay for itself in only four to five years, according the IBM team.

Other groups are looking at ways to harness the excess capacity of existing computing resources. During the oral presentations, a team from IIIT Delhi university reported its progress on transforming the idle capacity of the school’s computer lab into a private cloud.

Because they’ve solved many of the infrastructure challenges already, large businesses are likely to be the first to embrace the cloud, said several conference speakers. Unlike smaller businesses, most large companies in India already use IT, and it’s relatively easy for them to embrace the cost savings and efficiencies that cloud-based systems offer. The market for cloud computing in India already doubled between 2009 and 2011, according to Pari Natarajan, CEO of Zinnov Management Consulting.  He expects private clouds for large businesses to make up the bulk of Indian cloud computing growth, at least in the next few years. One advantage that such companies have over their more established counterparts is that they don’t have legacy infrastructure to transform, said IBM fellow Stefan Pappe. “They can decide more quickly to adopt these new strategies,” he said. IEEE Chief Information Officer Alexander Pasik echoed that point, saying that inertia and corporate culture make it harder for established IT departments to fully embrace the cloud.

But what about small and medium-sized businesses that don’t have existing IT systems and experience? “How can small shopkeepers come online with the cloud?” asked Sudhir Dixit, the head of HP’s Innovations for the Next Billion Customers Lab. These businesses “are the backbone of the nation’s economy,” he added, responsible for about half of India’s private employment and industrial output. But most still depend heavily on paper documentation, and Dixit estimates that less than 1 percent of these organizations use any type of automation.  It’s still difficult for many of these business owners to see the benefits of technology, said Rahul De’, a professor of sustainable economic development at IIM Bangalore. India’s abundance of cheap labor can make automation seem unnecessary and even uneconomical. But “manual labor doesn’t scale,” said Cisco’s Mansingh. “I think labor will become more expensive while the cloud will become cheaper.”

De’ said that new small and medium-sized businesses are more likely than existing ones to embrace the cloud and its benefits. For one thing, a cloud-based architecture drastically reduces the capital expenses, maintenance, and knowledge required by traditional IT systems. HP’s Dixit argued that even in emerging markets, affordability is relative to value. “If you speak the language of money—how much they can save—they will get excited,” he said.

One of the most repeated themes of the conference was the idea that cloud computing could have benefits beyond businesses, for the people who have traditionally been left behind in the digital divide.  “The real challenge is disparity,” said Sam Pitroda, “between urban and rural residents, between educated and uneducated people, and between those who have access to technology and those who don’t.” Pitroda, a key policy shaper for India’s central government, led off the conference with a talk about how the government hopes to harness the cloud to help the entire population.

India has probably embraced government IT, or e-governance, as much as any other country. The government’s plans for cloud computing are important because it can invest in it at a huge scale. “Over the next few years, we can expect a total government technology investment equivalent to millions of dollars,” said S. Ravindran, the CEO of the eGovernance Center in the state of Karnataka, where Bangalore is located.

India’s unique identification (UID) project was repeatedly highlighted as the most ambitious example of how governments can harness cloud computing to help change the lives of people at the bottom of the economic pyramid. The UID aims to provide a real-time service for verifying the identity of any Indian resident through biometrics or demographic information. One advantage of the UID is that it’s a generalized, online service that can be used by a variety of national, state, and local government agencies, as well as private businesses. That’s in contrast to previous e-governance systems that were limited solutions for individual ministries. “Everyone did their own thing, and we lacked standards,” said Pitroda.

So far, the Unique Identification Authority of India has collected biometric and demographic information from over 200 million people, and various government agencies are just beginning to use the system. It’s perhaps fitting that this unprecedented cloud computing initiative is being developed in an emerging market with acute public needs.

“What we need are affordable, scalable, and sustainable solutions—and cloud computing can help,” Pitroda said.

The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the bloggers and do not represent official positions of The Institute or IEEE.

Photo: Josh Romero

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