Cloud computing is a natural follow-on from standard web hosting. Many people think of web hosting as merely providing a repository for documents and data. However, web hosting is a lot more than that. When somebody goes to the Amazon website, for example, and searches for a particular product, software programs launch on Amazon’s server to query the product database and return the results. The surfer may then proceed to purchase a product, and will enter delivery and payment details. The surfer in effect has run application software on Amazon’s computer.
It was inevitable, therefore, that this ability to run programs on a remote server, or in the cloud, would be developed for other uses. Now, users can sign up to various cloud service providers, and run application programs like Microsoft Office on remote computers. This model of computing is likely to become increasingly popular, and more and more software applications will be accessed in this fashion.
The world of cloud computing has received a major boost with the announcement from IBM that its artificial intelligence (AI) program, or natural language query engine, Watson, will be accessible in the cloud.
IBM has been at the forefront of AI since the early days of computing. It achieved a major landmark in 1996 when its Deep Blue computer became the first one to defeat a chess grandmaster (World Champion Garry Kasparov) under standard tournament rules. While this was a significant achievement, the practical applications for Deep Blue were limited. The rules of chess make it a closed system, so Deep Blue became an “expert” in a very limited sphere.
Watson is significantly more intelligent than Deep Blue. To demonstrate that intelligence, IBM arranged a challenge match between Watson and a group of Jeopardy champions. Jeopardy is a television quiz program that examines contestants’ knowledge on a wide range of subjects. The Jeopardy champions were utterly defeated by Watson.
IBM has managed to scale down Watson’s memory requirements from the 15 terabytes that were needed to defeat the Jeopardy champions to 256 gigabytes. That is still a huge amount of memory, but the company has managed to make it practical by spreading the processing over numerous machines.
Users will be able to interact with Watson in a number of ways. The company is to release an API (application programming interface) toolkit. This will allow software developers to build apps that can manipulate the query engine. Since Watson will be accessible via cloud web hosting, this means app developers and app users can access Watson from anywhere in the world.
Another key feature of cloud app web hosting is that users only pay for what they use. Instead of buying software license packs, people subscribe to a particular service and are billed based on their usage of applications. IBM intends to apply the same protocol for people who want to access Watson. What this means is that the phenomenal processing power of Watson will be available to individuals and small businesses, many of whom have limited budgets.
This development is a giant leap forward for cloud computing, and an exciting development for developers and users alike.