Santa’s army of electronic helpers

When I was growing up in the 1960s, people were so confident of technological and economic progress that it seemed inevitable people would increasingly fill their lives with leisure activities while machines took over our work. Well, that’s not really how the 21st century has turned out. But on this one day of the year, when the Western world has all but stopped for Christmas Day, we can at least get a taste of what that imagined nirvana could have been like. Although of course a handful of people have been working this day in vital occupations such as healthcare, power generation and air traffic control, most of us are relaxing at home with our families. But whereas a hundred years ago, before the advent of mass market electrical gadgets such as the radio and gramophone, everyone would have made their own entertainment, in today’s connected modern world we download it.

Another vital occupation has been keeping the world turning for the rest of us today: the technologists who monitor and safeguard what’s happening in the data centers that handle all of the download purchases everyone has been making. When I was a child, there was no way to spend the book vouchers or record tokens that arrived with Christmas cards from far-flung family until the shops opened after the holidays. Today, the vouchers are electronic and the recipient can fulfil their purchase instantly via iTunes, Amazon or a hundred other online stores.

One of this season’s hottest toys, the LeapPad tablet from educational toy maker LeapFrog, will prompt thousands of game downloads from LeapFrog’s own download store, whose billing systems are operated by SaaS billing provider Vindicia. Despite huge sales of the tablet itself over the past two to three months, downloads had remained low until around ten days ago, when parents started prepping the device before wrapping it up for the big day. The biggest spike in volume will have been today, starting from around 6am, when children eagerly opened their gifts and selected the games they want to put on the tablet.

Vindicia’s CEO, Sanjay Sarathy, will have been sneaking occasional looks at his company dashboard to reassure himself that his customers’ systems are running smoothly. For him as for many others in the online industries, being online this holiday isn’t just for playing games or reading electronic editions of books and magazines. It’s also a time when the digital wheels of industry and commerce keep on turning. Many games developers, authors, publishers and online providers will go to bed better off tonight than they were when they rose this morning, without having to lift a finger (beyond tapping a few keys to check their online revenue tally). An army of electronic servers and switches will have performed their work today, while the masters of these digital helpers have had the choice of spending the holiday at home with their families. Only if something goes wrong will they have to rouse themselves into action to get things working again as rapidly as possible.

Those silent, ethereal, digital laborers in the data centers, performing their work for no fee except the electricity and cooling needed to keep them running, are the closest we have to fulfilling that 1960s dream of a life of leisure powered by machines. But once the holidays are over, we all have to go back to work, because the there’s only so much leisure to go round. We still haven’t automated away the need to go to work to pay for our leisure-time downloads.

(Cross-posted @ Software as Services Blog RSS | ZDNet)

For more than a decade, Phil Wainewright has been a trusted thought leader in cloud computing, as an analyst, blogger and consultant. He maintains a popular blog on software-as-a-service on ZDNet and serves as vice-president of EuroCloud, a pan-European business network promoting cloud services and applications. He is also CEO of strategic consulting group Procullux Ventures, where he advises top cloud vendors on messaging, positioning and go-to-market strategy. His forthcoming book, Frictionless Enterprise, describes how forward-looking enterprises are harnessing the cloud for business transformation, redefining best practice for successful organisations in the 21st century.
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