In the last year or so I have observed an ever growing interest by libraries in cloud computing. More of the conferences where I speak are focused on exploring the topic. Cloud computing is mentioned frequently in technical articles in the field, in blog postings, on twitter, and in product marketing. Libraries are keen to sort out the hype versus the reality of “the cloud.”
The companies that provide products and services for libraries are rapidly shifting their offerings to some flavor of cloud-based technologies. The library technology arena is currently divided between applications operated through locally housed servers and services delivered through cloud technologies. Consistent with trends in consumer and other IT sectors, I anticipate the shift toward cloud technologies to accelerate.
With the growing importance of cloud computing, it's important for those involved in libraries to be well informed regarding the nature of the technology and the how the products and services that they currently use or intend to acquire fit within this trend. Cloud computing tends to be used quite loosely, representing a variety of specific technical architectures or delivery mechanisms. A number of different sources are available that detail the characteristics of each of the related concepts, including software as a service, infrastructure as a service, or platform as a service. My latest book, for example, Cloud Computing in Libraries covered this topic.
The evolution from hype to reality that we're currently experiencing with cloud technologies seems to me quite similar to what we saw with “Web 2.0.” Beginning around 2005, Web 2.0 was all the rage in the broader IT space and quickly found its way as a pervasive theme in almost every library conference. The original intent of Web 2.0 was to highlight the social and dynamic nature of new destinations and apps.
Fundamentally, Web 2.0 relied on engagement and participation rather than simply a flat, one-dimensional set of Web pages delivering content. It extended beyond text, encompassing all forms of media, especially images, audio, and video. Web 2.0 emphasized the social dimension of technology services. In my view, Web 2.0 was a nice way to help describe the evolution toward the nature of the Web as it exists today. What comes after Web 2.0? It's just the Web. We no longer need to characterize those concepts as something new or special. They are inherent to the common understanding and experience of the Web today.
Companies that produce technologies are naturally interested in any tack that will help promote their products. Vendors want their product associated with hot trends. In the days of intense interest in Web 2.0, it seemed that every library product was promoted in that guise. In some cases, the association was a bit of a stretch. Products that had always had some kind of patron personalization were newly labeled as Web 2.0. But along with superficial marketing came substantive development. Developers recognized both the interest by libraries in these kinds of features and the inherent benefits of applications built with deeper connections to patron interactions. In my view, hype can mature into reality.
I see the same dynamic in play with cloud computing. Today, cloud computing seems to be the tech topic in the forefront. Although opinions remain mixed, a growing number of libraries seem interested in shifting away from traditional models of local computing and investigating services delivered “in the cloud.” Vendors seem anxious to tap into that interest any way they can as they position their products. The expression cloudwashing pokes fun at legacy applications now marketed using the vocabulary of cloud computing without the requisite development work to transform their architecture.
Library technology products seem now to have reached an increasing level of maturity relative to the trend of cloud computing. A few years ago, as cloud computing was beginning to gain wide acceptance, we may have seen a bit of cloudwashing, with only incremental changes made to adjust existing products in ways that could be positioned as using cloud computing. Some companies rebranded their offerings for hosting applications from the term application service provider, popular in the 1990s, to software as a service. These initial efforts have also led to more concerted efforts to either reengineer existing products or to develop entirely new services that conform to a more contemporary vision of cloud computing.
It has been interesting to observe the industry advance from an initial stage of cloud computing as marketing hype to substantive development. An increasing number of the strategic library products available today have been built from the ground up using modern cloud-based architecture and technologies. We're in a phase now where the model of client- server computing that prevailed in the previous decade is giving way to Web-based and cloud computing. These transitions naturally take many years to complete, both in terms of the development of products and in their implementation by libraries. But we're well along the way to an era where cloud computing dominates the library computing scene.