If you don’t already know about Cloud Computing, look now because the field is abuzz and smart people are talking excitedly about it. You’ll feel good. If you wait until the inevitable post-hype cycle crash, you won’t get as much information and you certainly won’t feel good.

Cloud Computing is a whimsical term our tech culture adopted, and we could have done better.  I understand why we landed on the cloud label, as I contributed.  You see, we all put fluffy cloud images on our slides in place of the tedium and scale of the networked computer architecture, hardware and software that is the internet.  It was all too easy to answer “It happens in the cloud,” in response to too many questions.  Our fault.

Now money is flowing into Cloud Computing and expert marketing people are busy recycling a bunch of old stuff with a Cloud Computing label.  Pity, because the predictable after-the-hype hangover will disenfranchise too many people from the merit in cloud computing.  And we desperately need their creativity to mine this untapped resource.

Obscured by the Cloud label, is an incredibly important point.  We are awash with more free but unused compute capacity than we can imagine.  I am sure that the current unused capacity far exceeds the total computing capacity, used plus unused, that existed on earth during many periods in my lifetime.

Free computing.

Our computers include servers which are the workhorses of the enterprise and the internet.  Millions of servers.   Netcraft has a survey of websites that would loosely correlate with the number of web servers (remember that many small websites like this one may be hosted on a single server, while big websites may employ thousands of web servers).  There are many hundreds of millions of personal computers and workstations, networked to the servers and each other. Forrester says there will be over a billion personal computers in operation by the end of 2008.

Stay with me.  Think about a running computer.  You bought it, powered it, cooled it and tended to it.  You spent your money.  Now that computer computes whatever you load, and in so doing is consumed some amount – say, 90% or 50% or 10%.  Then you add some additional compute load such as 1%, so the total becomes 91% or 51% or 11%.  That incremental amount doesn’t cost any more than you already spent.  At the margin, it’s free.

Now the sticklers will say, “You’re wrong, it will use a little more power and a/c.”  Technically, they’re right but it doesn’t matter.  Still free.  And the reason they are negligibly right is slightly perverse:  we are so rich with computing abundance that designers add capability to throttle back computers when not fully loaded.  Can you imagine explaining to Galileo (1564 – 1642)  or Copernicus (1473 – 1543)  that modern man is so rich with marvelous computing machines that he devises clever ways not to use them?

Calling it a Cloud does not help us think about the opportunity to use our abundant, free resource.

Let’s try another metaphor:  think about your house with a big yard, and a deep hole you dig into the ground.  You spent good money on the house, land and shovel.  At the bottom of the hole, you find water, oil or free computing.  Whether you use the water, oil or computing doesn’t change what you already spent on the house, yard and shovel. You found Computing Resources.  Mine and miner illustrate much better what’s going on with Cloud Computing, than clouds, in terms of finding and exploiting computing resources. (I realize holes where water and oil are found are wells, but ‘mines’ works too for purposes here.)

Mining for Silicon Gold

Mining for Computing Gold

(Illustration was created using Powerpoint.  Noncommercial reuse with attribution permitted.)

How big are our global computing reserves?

Before I make the calculation, you must understand this estimate is prototypical and for the purposes of illustrating the abundance.



Current Utilization

Potential Utilization

Net Available Equivalents (Millions)











If my numbers were to hold (i.e., not pulled out of thin air), we would have Global Computing Reserves in excess of 5 million servers and 500 million PCs.

I expect to get vigorous advice about the numbers being wrong.  And just as with global petroleum reserves, the ability to estimate the reserves does not translate into the ability to produce them all.  Unlike global petroleum reserves, we are briskly creating additional global computing reserves. By the way, I did not include mobile telephone handsets, an increasingly important and powerful set of networked computing resources.  Nor did I include the graphics cards in PCs, which are powerful computers barely used except when gaming or viewing Youtube.

So my numbers may be wrong.  Bring better numbers and your own method of making the estimate.  Even if I am over by 2 orders of magnitude, the net available computers may be between 1 and 10 million.

Hey entrepreneurs (miners), free computing!

Let’s use it.  Here is where the creativity I longed for far above is so desparately needed. – db