Book Review : The Big Switch – Rewiring the world from Edison to Google by Nicholas Carr


Prologue:

There is no doubt that the computing infrastructure is going thru another phase – Cloud computing has captured the imagination and mindset of the IT industry [http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/25/technology/25proto.html]. Some even compare this movement as the fourth wave – dial-up, Client Server, browser-based and now Cloud. While the concepts were around in different forms, the industry was spun first by Amazon (and their AWS – Amazon Web Services, especially the EC2 -Elastic Compute Cloud), Google followed with their AppEngine, Microsoft with their LiveMesh, IBM with their Blue Cloud and Sun with their various initiatives.

It is with this backdrop that I began reading Nicholas Carr’s “The Big Switch – Rewiring the world from Edison to Google”. Nic Carr is no stranger to the IT industry [http://www.roughtype.com/], his book “Does IT Matter” created a stir in many quarters. In his latest book he writes about the parallels between the development of the power grid and the emerging cloud computing. The cloud computing industry has the potential to change the way IT hardware and software are bought, deployed and used; of course, there will be winners and losers. Naturally the computer hardware and software industry should learn from history – the development of power grid !

How accurate are his observations ? Let me answer it this way – While I was writing this review, Nic posted an entry about Bill Gates’ final speech to developers at Microsoft’s TechEd 2008 [http://www.microsoft.com/events/teched2008/developer/default.mspx] – where Bill talks about “The design of massive data centers” as “one of the key areas of innovation in computing today”

Without wasting any time let me get to the review.

The Review:

Nic starts the book, reminiscent of Michael Crichton, with his visit to a mysterious data center, “a hulking gray building at the end of a litter-strewn street”, in Boston. Actually Nic would have been proud of the latest data center, SuperNAP in, of all places, in Vegas ! [http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/05/24/switch_switchnap_rob_roy/] He then dives into different aspects of the Internet age and offers a commentary & observation from three aspects economic, social & political.

Nic’s observations on the locus and trajectory of technology and relationship to economic forces (p.22) is a must read. He correctly identifies the technological progress as the consequence of economic forces beyond our control ! The progression of Edison Electric Light Company to GE (p.32) is an illuminating story (pardon the pun!) Nic, on p.36, with an uncanny ability to poster historical details at the right level, describes how factories with pulleys and chains transform to ones driven by electric power. Visit your data center and you can see the “hopeless confusion” – agreed these are rows of boxes, but you just have to see a management console or deployment process thru dev-stage-prod or look at apps dependency diagram (if the IT folks have one) to understand the complexities. The parallel is exact – may be even more complex because in the world of pulleys and chains, you can see them and if something is broken, it is visible. Many times, in the IT world, one has to go thru myriad of log files and debugging before one can even grasp what went wrong.

The core of his argument in this book (p.57) as well as in “Does IT matter?” is that all datacenters use “similar software running on similar equipments and employing similar kinds of workers”. In “Does IT matter”, he said it (IT) is a commodity and in this book he talks about computing power as being generated centrally and distributed like electric power. He is right. What it also enables (which Nic touches upon lightly) is that it frees companies to focus on their core competence i.e. business systems and free them from the “digital millwork”! IT is a necessary component but not sufficient for a competitive advantage.

Nic correctly defines computing as GPT (General Purpose Technologies). There is a good discussion (p.15) of the agonies (no standards, no broad distribution) and the ecstasies (can be applied broadly, offer huge economies of scale, can do innovative things) of being a GPT.

His observations on the effect of Internet on the newspaper industry is excellent – the effect on journalism (p.155) and how editors won’t pay for in-depth, well researched stories once there are no subscription revenue is very true. Another important observation – “more choice doesn’t necessarily mean better choices”

I really like the way Nic explains many forms of the digital divide (p.145) – contrary to popular belief the Internet widens the divide – “interplay between technology and economic forces rarely produce the results we at first expect” and results in plutonomy – “economic growth powered by and consumed be he wealthy few”. Correct observation- but am not sure it is a characteristic of the “universal computing grid”, but is more on the Internet in general. Another form of digital divide is polarization “by forces that can amplify slight and seemingly harmless personal references into dramatic and troubling consequences”. He also talks about ideological amplification by narrowing our focus by reading RSS feeds and blogs, which we subscribe thus narrowing our span of interest.

There is a good chapter (9:Fighting the net) on the darker side of the internet – spam, botnets, terrorism networks et al. While this is a good overview chapter, there is nothing new and there are no new observations. May be I am spoiled by the earlier chapters, this chapter is kind of weak, considering the depth of analysis on the other chapters. This chapter wouldn’t be of surprise to any of the /. Readers.

There is a chapter (10: A Spider’s Web) on anonymity (or lack thereof) and privacy issues. Carr writes in a very interesting way, how, from AOL keyword searches folks figured out who 4417749 was ! Carr (on p.188) says “One of the essential characteristics of the computer grid is the interconnection of stores of information” – I tend to disagree on this. Yes, we can download Amazon wish lists, AOL search metadata (if they publish) and other sources, but the grid itself does not interconnect stores of different data and being able to perform analytics based solely on the is not (yet!) possible. Google just announced on-line health records (www.google.com/health) !

Nic is right saying “computer systems in general and internet in particular puts enormous power in the hands of individuals, but even more power in the hands of companies” (p.191). The discussion on computers being used as a control plane is very interesting – from IBM statisticians and data mining experts modeling IBM consultants to Google modeling it’s employees and matching them with achievements to help recruit people, based on their answers.

Nic argues that while we all think corporate control is most pronounced by the use of these technologies, the most effective is the control of consumer behavior. I agree – with techniques like search engine optimization, targeted ads, personal product placement, social networks (which are fertile grounds of impressionable minds of youngsters) – it is not only possible but also happening !

Nic’s discussion on neuro marketers (by uncovering mental triggers!) is slightly disconcerting. I thought the last chapter (11: iGod) was overboard with topics like wireless brain appliances, physical neural interface et al. As Nic quotes Bill Gates – I also prefer “the computer to be over there and myself over here”. Also the final discussions on semantic web are a little overboard – the questions Nic asks are very valid and relevant, but the metaphors are a little off.

There are a few inconsistencies – for example, p.75 talks about remote answering machine as an example of virtualization; also defines virtualization as use of software to simulate hardware. Not fully right. In subsequent pages he gets his bearing right and talks about virtualization, multi-tenancy et al, which are more to the point.

Epilogue:

Nic Carr does an excellent job in “weaving history, economics and technology in an engaging way”. “Utility computing is a new and disruptive force, but it’s not without precedents” says Carr(p.110) and explains from the demand side – usually we hear from the supply side i.e. the technologies. So it is refreshing to read not only about the forces but also the historical similarities.

The book has some great quotes – for example “Here is our poetry, for we have pulled the stars to our will” – Ezra Pound in 1910, gazed upon Manhattan’s nigh skyline ! Whenever I am in Ne York, I try to have a glimpse at the Manhattan Skyline by night.

The stories Nic tells are very relevant and contextual – on p.90, he talks about the early industry – distribution of ice by storing huge ice sheets from lakes during winter – just melted away due to electric cooling ! What industry will melt away because of the cloud computing ?

The quote (p.219) from Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward about threads we create as we go thru life is so true ! Social networks are trying to create this thread and capitalize on their popularity of intertwining social threads !

In short, a well thought out book. The last couple of chapters miss the depth, wisdom, deliberation and the inquiry. May be I am biased; am eager to hear your impressions after you get a chance to read the book.

Reference:
[1] NYT article on Cloud NY Article on Cloud http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/25/technology/25proto.html
[2] Nicholas Carr╒s Blogs http://www.roughtype.com/
[3] SuperNAP story http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/05/24/switch_switchnap_rob_roy/
[4] Microsoft TechEd 2008 NA http://www.microsoft.com/events/teched2008/developer/default.mspx
[5] http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/14/technology/14search.html

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4 thoughts on “Book Review : The Big Switch – Rewiring the world from Edison to Google by Nicholas Carr

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