The Cloud Politic – How Regulation, Taxes, and National Borders are shaping the infrastructure of the cloud

Most people think of ‘the cloud’ as a technical place defined by technology, the innovation of software leveraged across a scale of immense proportions and ultimately a belief that its decisions are guided by some kind of altruistic technical meritocracy.  At some levels that is true on others one needs to remember that the ‘cloud’ is ultimately a business.  Whether you are talking about the Google cloud, the Microsoft cloud, Amazon Cloud, or Tom and Harry’s Cloud Emporium, each is a business that ultimately wants to make money.   It never ceases to amaze me that in a perfectly solid technical or business conversation around the cloud people will begin to wax romantic and lose sight of common sense.  These are very smart technical or business savvy people but for some reason the concept of the cloud has been romanticized into something almost philosophical, a belief system,  something that actually takes on the wispy characteristics that the term actually conjures up.  

When you try to bring them down to the reality the cloud is essentially large industrial buildings full of computers, running applications that have achieved regional or even global geo-diversity and redundancy you place yourself in a tricky place that at best labels you a kill-joy and at worst a Blasphemer.

I have been reminded of late of a topic that I have been meaning to write about. As defined by my introduction above, some may find it profane, others will choose to ignore it as it will cause them to come crashing to the ground.   I am talking about the unseemly and terribly disjointed intersection of Government regulation, Taxes, and the Cloud.   This also loops in “the privacy debate” which is a separate conversation almost all to itself.   I hope to touch on privacy but only as it touches these other aspects.

As many of you know my roles past and present have focused around the actual technical delivery and execution of the cloud.    The place where pure software developers fear to tread.  The world of large scale design, construction and operations specifically targeted at a global infrastructure deployment and its continued existence into perpetuity.   Perpetuity you say?  That sounds a bit to grandiose doesn’t it?  My take is that once you have this kind of infrastructure deployed it will become an integral part of how we as a species will continue to evolve in our communications and our technological advances.  Something this cool is powerful.  Something this cool is a game changer.  Something this cool will never escape the watchful eyes of the world governments and in fact it hasn’t. 

There was a recent article at Data Center Knowledge regarding Microsoft’s decision remove its Azure Cloud platform out of the State of Washington and relocate them (whether virtually or physically) to be run in the state of Texas.  Other articles have highlighted similar conversations with Yahoo and the state of Washington, or Google and the state of  North Carolina.   These decisions all have to do with state level taxes and their potential impact on the upfront capital costs or long term operating costs of the cloud.   You are essentially seeing the beginning of a cat and mouse game that will last for some time on a global basis.  States and governments are currently using their blunt, imprecise instruments of rule (regulations and taxes) to try and regulate something they do not yet understand but know they need to play apart of.   Its no secret that technology is advancing faster than our society can gauge its overall impact or its potential effects and the cloud is no different.

In my career I have been responsible for the creation of at least 3 different site selection programs.  Upon these programs were based the criteria and decisions of where to place cloud and data center infrastructure would reside.  Through example and practice,  I have been able to deconstruct other competitors criteria and their relative weightings at least in comparison to my own and a couple of things jump out very quickly at anyone truly studying this space.   While most people can guess the need for adequate power and communications infrastructure, many are surprised that tax and regulation play such a significant role in even the initial sighting of a facility.   The reason is pure economics over the total lifetime of an installation. 

I cannot tell you how often I have economic development councils or business development firms come to me to tell me about the next ‘great’ data center location.  Rich in both power infrastructure and telecommunications, its proximities to institutions of higher learning, etc.   Indeed there are some really great places that would seem ideal for data centers if one allowed them to dwell in the “romanticized cloud”.   What they fail to note, or understand is that there may be legislation or regulation already on the books, or perhaps legislation currently winding its way through the system that could make it an inhospitable place or at least slightly less welcoming to a data center.    As someone responsible for tens of millions or hundreds of millions, or even billions of dollars worth of investment you find yourself in a role where you are reading and researching legislation often.  Many have noted my commentary on the Carbon Reduction Commitment in the UK, or my most recent talks about the current progress and data center impacts of the Waxman-Markey bill in the US House of Representatives.  You pay attention because you have to pay attention.   Your initial site selection is supremely important because you not only need to look for the “easy stuff” like power and fiber, but you need to look longer term, you need to look at the overall commitment of a region or an area to support this kind of infrastructure.   Very large business decisions are being made against these “bets” so you better get them right.  

To be fair the management infrastructure in many of these cloud companies are learning as they go as well.   Most of these firms are software companies who have now been presented with the dilemma of managing large scale capital assets.  Its no longer about Intellectual Property, its about physical property and there are some significant learning curves associated with that.   Add to the mix that this is whole cloud thing is something entirely new.    

One must also keep in mind that even with the best site selection program and the most robust up front due diligence, people change, governments change, rules change and when that happens it can and will have very large impacts on the cloud.   This is not something cloud providers are ignoring either.  Whether its through their software, through infrastructure, through a more modular approach they are trying to solve for the eventuality that things will change.   Think about the potential impacts from a business perspective.

Lets pretend you own a cloud and have just sunk 100M dollars into a facility to house part of your cloud infrastructure.   You spent lots of money in your site selection and up front due diligence to find the very best place to put a data center.   Everything is going great, after 5 years you have a healthy population of servers in that facility, you have found a model to monetize your service, so things are going great, but then the locale where your data center lives changes the game a bit.   They pass a law that states that servers engaged in the delivery of a service are a taxable entity.  Suddenly that place becomes very inhospitable to your business model.   You now have to worry about what that does to your business.   It could be quite disastrous.   Additionally if you rule that such a law would instantly impact your business negatively, you have the small matter of a 100M asset sitting in a region where you cannot use it.   Again a very bad situation.  So how do you architect around this?  Its a challenge that many people are trying to solve.   Whether you want to face it or not, the ‘Cloud’ will ultimately need to be mobile in its design.  Just like its vapory cousins in the sky, the cloud will need to be on the move, even if its a slow move.  Because just as there are forces looking to regulate and control the cloud, there are also forces in play where locales are interested in attracting and cultivating the cloud.  It will be a cycle that repeats itself over and over again.

So far we have looked at this mostly from a taxation perspective.   But there are other regulatory forces in play.    I will use the example of Canada. The friendly frosty neighbors to the great white north of the United States.  Its safe to say that Canada and US have had historically wonderful relations with one another.   However when one looks through the ‘Cloud’ colored looking glass there are some things that jump out to the fore. 

In response to the Patriot Act legislation after 9-11, the Canadian government became concerned with the rights given to the US government with regards to the seizure of online information.  They in turn passed a series of Safe-Harbor-like laws that stated that no personally identifiable information of Canadian citizens could be housed outside of the Canadian borders.    Other countries have done, or are in process with similar laws.   This means that at least some aspects of the cloud will need to be anchored regionally or within specific countries.    A boat can drift even if its anchored and so must components of the cloud, its infrastructure and design will need to accommodate for this.  This touches on the privacy issue I talked about before.   I don’t want to get into the more esoteric conversations of Information and where its allowed to live and not live, I try to stay grounded in the fact that whether my romantic friends like it or not, this type of thing is going to happen and the cloud will need to adapt.

Its important to note that none of the legislation focuses on ‘the cloud’ or ‘data centers’ just yet.   Just as the Waxman-Markey bill or CRC in the UK doesn’t specifically call out data centers, those laws will have significant impacts on the infrastructure and shape of the cloud itself. 

There is an interesting chess board developing between technology versus regulation.   They are inexorably intertwined with one another and each will shape the form of the other in many ways.   A giant cat an mouse game on a global level.   Almost certainly, this evolution wont be  the most “technically superior” solution.  In fact, these complications will make the cloud a confusing place at times.   If you desired to build your own application using only cloud technology, would you subscribe to a service to allow the cloud providers to handle these complications?  Would you and your application  be liable for regulatory failures in the storage of  Azerbaijani-nationals?  Its going to be an interesting time for the cloud moving forward. 

One can easily imagine personally identifiable information housed in countries of origin, but the technology evolving so that their actions on the web are held elsewhere, perhaps even regionally where the actions take place.  You would see new legislation emerging to potentially combat even that strategy and so the cycle will continue.  Likewise you might see certain types of load compute or transaction work moving around the planet to align with more technically savvy or advantageous locales.  Just as the concept of Follow the Moon has emerged for a potential energy savings strategy to move load around based on the lowest cost energy, it might someday be followed with a program similarly move information or work to more “friendly” locales.     The modularity movement of data center design will likely grow as well trying to reduce the overall exposure the cloud firms have in any given market or region.   

On this last note, I am reminded of one of my previous posts. I am firm in my belief that Data Centers will ultimately become the Sub-Stations of the information utility.  In that evolution they will become more industrial, more commoditized, with more intelligence at the software layer to account for all these complexities.  As my own thoughts and views evolve around this I have come to my own strange epiphany.  

Ultimately the large cloud providers should care less and less about the data centers they live in.  These will be software layer attributes to program against.  Business level modifiers on code distribution.   Data Centers should be immaterial components for the Cloud providers.  Nothing more than containers or folders in which to drop their operational code.  Today they are burning through tremendous amounts of capital believing that these facilities will ultimately give them strategic advantage.   Ultimately these advantages will be fleeting and short-lived.  They will soon find themselves in a place where these facilities themselves will become a drag on their balance sheets or cause them to invest more in these aging assets. 

Please don’t get me wrong, the cloud providers have been instrumental in pushing this lethargic industry into thinking differently and evolving.   For that you need give them appropriate accolades.  At some point however, this is bound to turn into a losing proposition for them.  

How’s that for Blasphemy?

\Mm

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18 thoughts on “The Cloud Politic – How Regulation, Taxes, and National Borders are shaping the infrastructure of the cloud

  1. Mike – Its this kind of post that shows why you are considered one of the preeminent minds in our industry today. This definitely made me go hmm. I would have never thought about this kind of thing.

  2. Does this concept of movable clouds add more weight to containers?

    If clouds are based in easily movable containers, then the ability to move is even greater? What about the concept of floating DC’s? i.e. move the ship or barge full of containers to a more “friendly” port?

    What does this do to power and fiber contracts? Do most mega centers enter into long term agreements for power?

    Very interesting discussion.

    • Bob – containers could be one way of moving the infrastructrure around more easily. Perhaps as an interim solution. Keep in mind that even container solutions require buildings to source power, telecommunications and potentially water. This is something that can easily be solved in Software if enough attention is given to solve that problem. Ultimately whether its boats, containers, or spaceships all of these solutions require large or large-ish capital solutions. Solve the problem in software once, then you solve it forever.

      Your point on the power and fiber contracts is important, because you typically do sign up for power and connectivity over a longer period of time. By moving this problem to the software layer, you could move the “offending” software to another locale, and load other applications or services on that same infrastructure thereby keeping the value associated with that location intact. It could also continue to be used as those “anchor” points I talked about with regards to privacy and storage of personally identifiable information.

      \Mm

  3. Michael,

    This is absolutely true, and taking it one step further, with the cap and trade taxability of carbon footprints winding its way through the government, the tax implications are a looming cloud for this industry and our customers.

    The issue of who owns the data is still an issue, as is its destruction after it has reached the end of its useful life. Google is forever, and ‘cache is King’.

    I sincerely hope that this kind of thing spurs those of us at different layers of the overall delivery of computing to band together and have a say in this so that States are able to make more informed decisions (tax rates) with less unintended consequences (tax revenue picking up and leaving or going chapter 11).

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  7. This is the case for any business though.

    Say you’re setting up a manufacturing plant while getting certain subsidies from the govt. Say there’s a change of the ruling party. The govt. changes from Democrats to Republicans or vice-verca, and there’s change of opinions. The subsidies are eventually withdrawn. There goes your happiness.

    I believe there exists a diplomatic solution to it, in the name of political lobbying.

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  10. Mike – very interesting – in promoting our new DC facility in South wales to cloud providers we have recently come across the issue of taxation pros and cons as applied to the UK.

    What are your views on Fresh Air Cooling as this has major implications on carbon footprint etc

  11. Hi Mike:

    Couldn’t agree more – blogged on this myself a year ago and entitled “Data Wars”: http://rhdonaldson.wordpress.com/2008/11/17/data-wars/

    The ever increasing “technification” of our world only drives the need for “infrastructure 2.0″ which will be at the heart of all that we do – the central nervous system if you will.

    Mike – what do you think, if there is anything, that could change this equation of datacenter expansion into perpetuity? (For example, if we conquer the speed of light somehow, that would dramatically alter how we deploy technical assets) – just curious as to what could alter the paradigm we see today…(if anything at all)

    • Difference is that I am Practice and he is theory. As you know the difference is always bigger in practice than in theory. :) I have been active in site selection for over a decade, and this has been out there a long time. Long before Nicholas has been talking about it. The interesting here is that you are seeing this dynamic in action.

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