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The Stack Archive

Peer into the future: How the mesh is set to be the new Cloud

Wed 14 Jan 2015

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Martin King is Head of IT services at Ealing, Hammersmith & West London College. His early training in psychology and anthropology combines with thirty years’ experience of working with IT in further education to give him a visionary take on the future of education and the world that those leaving it will have to face…

“We’re preparing ourselves for the wrong future,” says King. “All indications are that change is happening faster and our world is more unpredictable and uncertain than ever. Rather than prepare young people for a predictable, stable world, we should be helping them deal with a VUCA world: Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous. This is what I am interested in.

“Education is becoming increasingly ‘schizophrenic’ – subject to confused identity and purpose, and even to a delusional mind-set. That’s due to the multiple forces at play – politics and institutions, exam boards, content and equipment providers. These forces are demanding measurable outcomes, such as certifications; but they also realise that focusing too hard on the analytical rationality and stability of standardised measurable outcomes – and its logical conclusion to teach to the test – means that there is less room for creative, synthetic independent development; and these are the very qualities that will be required in a VUCA world.”

King foresees the prospect of a potential ‘parallel system’ of education, or ‘citizen education’, where progress is reviewed informally based on peer principals. “In a sense this mirrors the development of peer and decentralised technologies, and maker culture,” he says. “We may see the impact of this in all spheres of life as the 21st century unfolds, and particularly in politics, work and education. In education this might involve MOOCs, badges, peer reputation, blogs and social media activity.

“Job recruitment has always looked for ‘extra curricular’ material, and this is increasingly the case – employers check out candidates on-line and candidates prepare an online portfolio – things you have done that complements tests you have taken. Of course, the balance of this will depend on the job in question,”

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The peer model is a significant factor in King’s take on the current and future state both of education IT and of technology in general. Just as institutions, such as education, may need to adapt, die or be retrofitted for unexpected new demands or expectations, the existing IT infrastructures are being challenged by new trends too. The prospect of Information Centric Networking , which proposes a switch from host-centric network architecture to a content approach, is a radical departure from the original scope and intentions of network infrastructure, and the ‘communal’ computing model is beginning to seriously challenge both the original infrastructure of the internet and the very definition of ‘cloud computing’:

“The common theme in peer decentralised or distributed systems is SWARM – the ability to self-organise, self-heal and to get better with more users, rather than degrade as users increase.

“Hackers use SWARM protocols in distributed denial of service attacks. BitTorrent is a swarm protocol too; it’s incredibly powerful, scalable and resilient. It would have been ideal to stream The Interview on over Christmas. Although it did, unofficially.

King notes that radically different approaches to network building are emerging today, such as Cambridge University’s Pursuit network design, PARCs content centric design, Darpa’s MANET and citizen urban meshnets.

“I’ve been playing with grid computing, which has been around for a long time, but distributed meshnets are different. Interestingly they are more like the brain – the way the brain distributes processing throughout the neocortex, with a few centralised and specialised areas like the hippocampus for memory for example. It’s an analogy you can take quite a long way.”

The reinvention of the network has consequences for current trends and buzzwords in business and global technology, according to King, who believes that the term ‘cloud’ has more power than it has definition:

“‘The Cloud’ is many different things. It’s matured and become forked by the industry as big, bankable news. Many slap the ‘cloud’ sticker on products or services that aren’t ‘cloud’ at all, such as hosting. And what on Earth is an ‘on premise cloud’?

“The concept of cloud came from the symbol for Wide Area Network, and of course before the fully decentralised and distributed tech that we now see emerging from the network. The current ‘cloud’ just uses the network to get to a massive data centre owned by a company – Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and so forth. Cryptographic meshnets really embody the philosophy that ‘the network is the computer’.

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“If people think that the current cloud is difficult to ‘get’, wait until these systems emerge! It’s a true paradigm change. This is a subject that I’ll be addressing in my presentation for Cloud Expo Europe. ”

King believes that the uptake and continuing innovation of peer technologies will be driven by economic and privacy concerns, but also by the new possibilities of the technologies themselves. “Events will shape and balance the dynamic in the short term,” he says. “In a sense the ‘technium’ will adapt and “evolve”. In the long term I think developments will shape events; ‘We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us’ . New peer and SWARM-based technology may shape society – the potential is even out there for new forms of organisation and governance.

“There is a problem with cost; Google give you 15Gb free, but in academia we get unlimited storage free. How can you beat that? So the initial motivation is privacy – like a mushroom, peer will grow in the dark. The more governments push for increased surveillance – and they can’t help themselves – the more a young generation may turn to alternative tech for privacy – and just because it’s ‘cool’. Ephemeral private messaging such as SnapChat and WhatsApp is growing fast in the dark. Ephemeral private messaging is growing fast in the dark. Combine that impetus with proper peer architecture and you have a tremendous impetus for change.”

King sees the benefit of new peer systems, such as Bitcoin/blockchain and BitTorrent’s Maelstrom project, where contribution to network resources is built into the model.

“Our devices have loads of spare capacity, especially CPU cycles. I really like the idea that we ‘pay’ for access by contributing spare capacity, such as the CPU, storage or network access; this makes these systems mutual, and ‘mutual computing’ is, I suppose, another way of thinking about peer computing. One example of this is using Namecoin as a peer decentralised DNS system; using it on your machine contributes some resources to the system.

“I see all systems co-existing – client server, cloud, local computing, peer computing…all used for different reasons under different circumstances, and providing a diverse population for an adaptive and evolutionary response to environmental changes. If Governments or cloud suppliers push hard then peer will thrive, and there may be no turning back from the tipping point, or paradigm change. If peer is too clunky or turns out to be insecure and problematic then other forms are there.”

Working in education IT, King’s vision of what the young will do with new technologies is well-informed. “I think Peer may become cool with millennials. They are already quite used to BitTorrent and Popcorn Torrent streaming for example.

“It is of course our young who are the most rebellious and kick back against the establishment. In my day it was protests against war and nuclear issues; today millennials are tech savvy, and their rebellion will be through technology – quite likely through peer technology. Millennials are quite entrepreneurial and creative – they are ‘DIY-ing’ a whole load of new stuff, similar to the ‘garage development’ in the 1970s that allegedly gave rise to our PC industry.”

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Another liberating technology, according to King, is 3D printing, which he believes holds huge potential to enfranchise the individual – formerly known as ‘the consumer’.

“3D printing I think will be truly revolutionary,” he says. “disintermediating much of the logistics involved with physical object supply-chains, but also facilitating citizen design and manufacture.

“I think it will develop in the same way as photography and music to name just two. 3D printing will develop like all consumer technologies once capability, ease of use, price and familiarity reach certain points – available at first on a shared basis in shops but eventually in more and more people’s homes.

“3D printing makes real what Tim O’Reilly described as Web Squared; when ‘Web meets world’. It takes us a step towards ‘programmable matter’ and the eventual potential if and when nanotechnology leaves the labs later in the century…but that’s another story!”

Martin King, Head of IT services at Ealing, Hammersmith & West London College, is speaking at Cloud Expo Europe on how the cloud is not the final destination but just part of a journey.

King speaks on at ExCeL London on Wednesday 11th March in the Cloud Management and Services Application Theatre, 10.15am. Register today for your complimentary ticket. Your ticket allows you access to over 300 world-class speakers and a leading exhibition of over 300 international suppliers.

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