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There’s a new thing called ‘fog computing’ and no, we’re not joking

kid uses iphone
kid uses iphone

(Getty/Mario Tama)

By now, you've probably heard of cloud computing.

That's where companies rent shared software, computers, and storage instead of buying and installing it all themselves. They pay for their usage via subscriptions, accessing it over the internet.

Cloud computing is all the rage right now, on track to be a $10 billion business for Amazon in 2016; Microsoft hopes it will become a $20 billion business by 2018, and Google thinks it will become bigger than its internet ad business by 2020.

So what comes after the cloud? If you ask Cisco, it's something called "fog computing."

Last month, Cisco was joined by other industry leaders including Intel, Microsoft, ARM, Dell, and Microsoft to back a new "fog computing" consortium, the OpenFog initiative. It sounds like something straight from a Saturday Night Live parody skit, but it's not.

Later this month, the consortium is holding a conference at Princeton University. Princeton is leading the research into fog computing.

Why Cisco wants this

So what exactly is it? To understand fog computing, you first have to understand cloud computing. In cloud computing, everyone shares the same massive data centers. You run an app on your phone in your home town, but the back-end computers may be in Virginia, or California, or Ireland, etc.

A Cisco logo is seen at its customer briefing centre in Beijing, in the November 14, 2013 file photo. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon
A Cisco logo is seen at its customer briefing centre in Beijing, in the November 14, 2013 file photo. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

(Thomson Reuters)

But with fog computing, computers and storage are scattered all over, perhaps placed closer to the app's users. The network is smart enough to know where the data is stored.

With the network as the star, you can see why Cisco is championing this idea. It means selling a lot more high-end, very profitable network equipment to connect a lot more computers and data centers.

Cisco has been largely left out of the cloud computing revolution.

As its customers move to the cloud, they need to buy less networking equipment. Meanwhile, some of the biggest cloud operators, like Facebook and Microsoft, have invented their own, new low-cost network equipment.

As for the rest of the traditional IT players (Intel, Dell, Microsoft, ARM), if "fog computing" takes off they stand to gain, too. Lots of computers scattered everywhere means selling lots of computer servers and operating systems and chips.

Will it take hold?

Just because it's in Cisco's self-interest to promote fog computing, doesn't mean it won't be a real thing someday.

Fog creeps in over the buildings in Maringa, Brazil.
Fog creeps in over the buildings in Maringa, Brazil.

(Dronestagram/Ricardo Matiello)

The name "fog" is new, but the general concept isn't. It used to be called "distributed computing."

Years ago, the now defunct company called Sun Microsystems even had a slogan "the network is the computer." (Oracle bought Sun in 2010.)

When you talk to anyone in the cloud computing industry today, they'll tell you that cloud is young and here to stay (and it is). Some believe it will stretch out in a linear line, growing endlessly bigger and more glorious over time.

But that's not how the computer industry typically works. It's more like a spiral.

The computing industry breathes in and out between centralized and distributed computing models: centralized (mainframes) turned into distributed (PCs and local computer servers, known as "client/server"), and have now become centralized again (cloud computing). So, next up would be distributed.

It does this because each model solves the problem created by the last model. Centralized computing allows you to maintain control and efficiently share computers, which lowers cost. But it can create bottlenecks as all apps rush to share the same computers. And it's expensive to keep building more and bigger data centers.

kid child iphone ipad tablet
kid child iphone ipad tablet

(Getty/Mario Tama)

Decentralized allows you to run apps closer to the people using the apps so the apps perform better.

This could becomes very important as billions of devices join the internet as part of the "Internet of Things." It can also be cheaper to shove a few computer servers in a room instead of building a big data center. But distributed computing can also create sprawl, get messy, and ultimately cost more.

So fog computing could very well be the next thing.

Then again, there's a rise of new technologies, like quantum computing, that could change everything and squash any tech based on the old ways to do things, including fog computing.

A horrible name

Whether fog thrives or dies, we can't help point out the karmic implications in the name. "Fog computing" might be a cute play on the term "cloud computing", but it also means: unclear, confusing, and fuzzy.

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