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October 22
Cloud in a Box

As part of my ongoing ideation along the lines of "What if Computing, but Different?" one of the things I think would make people feel better about modern computing is if more or it could be in their homes.

In today's installment, what if "The Cloud" as in services run and maintained by a different (usually commercial) entity but part of the way that service was provisioned is you used it via a box or virtual appliance provisioned on your own hardware, located in your home or office. There's versions of this in play today, notably in networking and security applications, where a firewall or router or similar type of appliance is managed by an external entity. Even cloud-managed antiviruses on local computers are a thing now.

I'm mixed on The Cloud. On one hand, the way Microsoft has been doing it for a few years, you can choose from what makes sense for your needs. If that means you buy a copy of Office, well here it is. If you want to subscribe to it, here's that option, and it comes with a bunch of online storage and mobile integration. I think things become problematic once we become naturally on the hook for these sorts of recurring subscription software applications. They're extremely profitable, and I can see why a business might find it easier to pay for something this way, but I also think that (in Adobe's case especially) it makes it more difficult to access tools you used to be able to buy and then keep until you had some reason to update. This is especially true on Windows where you can usually install old software with little to no trouble.

But, if we're stuck with the cloud, there may as well at least be ways to make it less bad for those with slow or inconsistent Internet access.

But, I'm thinking of something a little bit different. In my version, it would be a little bit more like, what if you had a Google Apps account or a Microsoft Office 365 account and copies of the data and code needed to run the service were stored on a machine in your house. Basically, what if one of the machines that runs Office 365 did everything the product had, and your data on it, and maybe some other information, and Microsoft was on the hook for maintaining the box itself, but as part of running it this way, it runs better in areas with slower Internet connectivity and it would work better as a device in, say, offices with multiple people whose account data could be on the machine.

I imagine in most situations, not everybody would get such a box. In fact, in a better world, the Internet connections at more places would be better and a box in one home, say, on a block or in a neighborhood would increase performance for the people in the local area. Though, for a neighborhood's worth of Office 365 usage, you start to need a bigger box – something it makes sense to deploy in a community center or near the local set of telco infrastructure boxes.

In one potential arrangement, somebody could add such a device to their subscription to a service in exchange for being able to use more storage space with the service. In another, a big box could be given for free or used as a cache or geo-redundant storage option for other subscribers, with the payoff being reduced subscription prices for the person hosting the machine, in exchange for the overhead incurred in their power bill and internet usage.

In a large environment, say, a corporate or institutional campus, a large box (or a group of them) could be placed for caching, speed, and to keep services "running" when networking becomes unavailable. Caching in this specific manner would mean both sides of a connectivity loss (let's say, the Internet to a school campus) can retain access to the service. People off campus can be redirected back to the copy of the service at the canonical datacenter and people on campus can work from the cache box. Changes would be re-synced at best effort when connectivity was restored.

Of course, this is not so distant from the late '90s "every home has good Internet now" vision of home hosting. And, in the late 2000s, Microsoft elaborated on this vision with Windows Home Server, which primarily integrated with Windows Media Center and a few other services (the backup tools, for example) to provide what they saw at the time as an "important" addition to the home computing infrastructure. These days, we're seeing this stuff get added to cloud service providers (iCloud Disk, OneDrive, Google Drive) which increasingly relies on fast Internet connections and consistently, relatively un-congested data paths from the home to the provider, which we know isn't particularly realistic.

This is something I've been wanting for a while. I've written about it in various forms, most notably about an idea for a network-based tv set-top box to best-effort download high quality (or: settable quality) versions of TV shows and movies during off peak periods, to make transfers go faster and to (potentially) save network charges. The closest we've gotten is at any given moment some percentage of Netflix' catalog is available for download on a device like an iPad or iPhone, primarily for travel.

In this case, the idea of an on-prem $SERVICE appliance would really be less about control or ownership, because unless you paid for it outright it would almost certainly be owned and leased under some kind of agreement, and your account is likely still on the service itself, but it would be more about comfort and performance, and perhaps better control over Internet usage in general, especially in exceedingly dire networking situations, such as via satellite or long-range Wi-Fi. I think being able to offer a service like that would enable some different and interesting use cases. For example, I've long wanted Office 365 or OneDrive to be a reasonable spot for more of my own daily usage. I'd especially love an option to present OneDrive as an actual mapped or logical "drive" on my computer, and I would love to be able to use it effectively without having a big secondary internal disk and using the sync agent.

Of course, the next most logical conclusion here is a service where you can lease a box configured a way and you get the services provided by the box, with options (for varying prices) on how you want to handle things like redundancy, backups, etc. I have an Internet connection capable of hosting my own email and document management services. If leasing an Office 365 box and using it with your own domain was an option, I might do it.

Of course, there are numerous problems with this kind of suggestion. You either have to pick only one box and have it be your main router or give it control of your router, or you'd have to (manually) do a bunch of stuff in DNS that isn't reasonably possible on home connections, making it less than viable to suggest someone could pick up an Adobe CC caching appliance and an Office 365 appliance.

Of course, ultimately it might be better to escape The Cloud entirely. I've long thought a better and less maintenance-prone version of something like Windows SBS would be an appropriate home server. Of course, you'd need to convince Microsoft to include a lot of functionality for a certain number of users in something that could be added to an inexpensive piece of hardware. For all that I'm ultimately imagining an ideal home server would probably run around $2500, before you do things like account for a UPS or for a backup service or device. That, of course, ties in with my lamentations about how badly RDX is priced (because, as a piece of hardware it would be perfect for the task) and how there's no modern affordable big-capacity removable media.

The main reason "Office 365 in a box on your desk" sounds good is because it provides an option for people who don't have the wherewithal or don't want to be on the hook for building something on their own but provides some (admittedly: not all or maybe even most) of the benefits of hosting something locally. The reason this is important is because we can't trust the open source community to build something like this (a plug-and-play home server that maintains itself save for a simple control panel). They never have, and they never will – I'm convinced they're utterly uninterested in the idea. Commercial vendors are the next best bet, but anything a commercial vendor sells for use in perpetuity is going to be abandoned instantly if it can't make billions in profit and will likely operate on similar software and hardware support cycles to the computer industry today, which is to say, the computing industry expects nobody has a computer older than five years old. The idea is actively derided.

So, adapt it to an existing subscription model we know vendors love so much and introduce a few well known scenarios to make it possible to have the vendor be on the hook for the health of the machine, even if the vendor has to send you a new one every few years.


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