WASHINGTON -- Enthusiasts of cloud computing like to describe it as the next great paradigm in the IT industry, following on the heels of proud predecessors like the mainframe, the PC and the Internet.
The idea that data and applications will reside in the ether and computing power will become a resource distributed over a network like electricity is already well established in tech circles. But in Washington, the policy debate is only beginning.
Here at the Newseum, researchers from IT consultancy Marketspace presented a new study of the cloud and its policy implications, stressing the new for universal Internet access and open, neutral networks.
"In our view, the cloud doesn't reach its full potential unless any player can access it on a fair nondiscriminatory basis," said Andrew Heyward, senior adviser at Marketspace.
Talk of nondiscriminatory network management is like throwing a rock at a hornet's nest, inviting the politically charged debate of Net neutrality, a subject on which Heyward demurred this morning.
"We are not insane enough to enter the Net neutrality debate in Washington," he said, though Marketspace's study plainly calls on Congress and the Federal Communications Commission to clarify and enforce open network principles.
The researchers also described for universal connectivity as the lifeblood of the cloud, and another key area where policy makers should play a role. Congress has already moved in that direction with the passage of last month's economic stimulus bill, which allocated billions of dollars for the construction and expansion of high-speed networks.
The idea of expanded access to high-speed, nondiscriminatory broadband networks neatly aligns with key planks of the policy agenda advanced by some of the biggest Web companies, including Google (NASDAQ: GOOG), which commissioned the Marketspace study and hosted today's event.
The term "cloud computing," vague by nature, for many has yet to graduate from buzzword status. Yet at the most basic level, anyone with a Web-based e-mail account or a profile on a social network is already taking advantage of cloud computing, whether they know it or not.
"On one hand this sounds like a terribly like arcane and abstract topic, on the other hand actually hundreds of millions -- arguably on a global basis billions of consumers ... are actually already in the cloud and using the cloud today," said Marketspace Chairman Jeffrey Rayport.
Rayport and Heyward talk of the cloud at three levels. First are the myriad consumer-facing applications like Google's Gmail and YouTube, technologies where people can send a message or watch a video through processing power from someone else's servers.
Next are more developed platform environments streamed over the Web, such as Microsoft's Azure, Salesforce's Force.com and Google Apps. This model is sometimes described as a platform as a service (or, more infrequently, "PaaS," which Rayport dismissed as "a four-letter acronym that nobody uses").
The researchers described the third tier of the cloud is the infrastructure level, where businesses can buy raw processing power and storage capacity from IT giants like Google and Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HP), what author Nicholas Carr has famously referred to as the new power grid.
For some companies, this model emerged almost by accident, the researchers said.
"One reason the cloud grew is that Google and Amazon and other companies had excess capacity after building these datacenters for their own core businesses -- Google for search Amazon for e-commerce -- and they had these server networks that could then be used for other purposes," Heyward said.
From a policy perspective, beyond promoting ubiquitous and open networks, government can take a firm stance in adopting a cloud-based model in its own IT systems, the researchers said. However, Rayport and Heyward admitted that many in the government will be resistant to the remote hosting and shared access of the cloud.
Nevertheless, they look to Vivek Kundra, who was recently named the country's first federal CIO, to push the adoption of cloud-based services across the federal IT landscape, just as he did while most recently serving as the CTO of Washington, D.C.
Their research identifies several other conditions that will enable the cloud model to flourish, such as privacy, reliability and data security.
In the area of digital privacy, which is poised to resurface on the congressional radar, Heyward admitted that "the laws have not kept up with the cloud," though he said he generally favors a market-driven approach.
Some of Facebook's well-publicized struggles with user privacy, such as the Beacon ad platform and the recent skirmish over its terms of service, demonstrate to him that if a Web company tramples on its users' privacy, they will revolt and effect a change in the policy.
The issue of who owns data is complicated by the inherently distributed model of the cloud's architecture. The phenomenon of virtualization has enabled a company's far-flung datacenters to work together to execute tasks. The idea of data passing through server farms spread across multiple countries makes it all-but-impossible to implement a unified legal framework to address information on the cloud.
"What's the law in Indonesia regarding my e-mail?" Heyward said.
Those ambiguities aside, the researchers counseled a largely hands-off role for the government at this early stage in the development of the cloud.
"This is not a time for rapid-fire or trigger-happy government intervention," Rayport said. "The best role for government or policy makers to play at this point is as we put it to clear the road, to clear the obstacles, to ensure universal access to connectivity."
This article was first published on InternetNews.com.