The cloud is currently a question, not an answer

Lorcan 2 min read

I will be on the LITA Top Technology Trends panel on Sunday. I have yet to finalize my thoughts, but I am sure that mobile and cloud will figure. We are increasingly familiar with the twin discussions about mobilization and the cloud, and about how each trend supports the other.

As networking spreads, we have multiple connection points which offer different grades of experience (the desktop, cell phone, xBox or Wii, GPS system, smartphone, ultra-portable notebook, and so on). While these converge in various ways, they are also optimized for different purposes. A natural accompaniment of this mesh of connection points is a move of many services to the cloud, available on the network across these multiple devices and environments. This means that an exclusive focus on the institutional Web site as the primary delivery mechanism and the browser as the primary consumption environment is increasingly partial. [Always on: Libraries in a world of permanent connectivity]

In each case, it is not simply a matter of moving services to a new environment. Think of two trajectories. In one, current services may be reconfigured, as where, for example, the library website is atomized and selectively offered in a mobile app or apps. In another, new service options may appear, as where, for example, the location of the user can influence the nature of the service offered.
There are various ways of characterising cloud computing: see for example the now routine distinction between software-, platform- and infrastructure-as-a-service (explored in the Wikipedia article among other places).
Here is a simple way of thinking about moving library management applications like the ILS to the cloud. While these will continue to exist, taken successively they involve greater reconfiguration of existing processes. Note that I am limiting the discussion to library management applications in this way – a broader discussion might include a range of other interesting possibiliites …
Consider three simple stages …

  1. Hosting. A library may chose to have an application hosted by a third party. This may provide a saving for the library where the third party delivers at a lower price than the cost of local management, or where local specialist staff is not required. However, the character of the application itself does not change much.
  2. Sharing. Libraries may share infrastructure and facilities meaning that spare capacity can be consolidated and reduced. The consolidation of data, infrastructure and services may also mean that services can be enhanced. Think of introduction of new features, rapid integration of new services or information resources, removal of redundant operations, and so on. Note, by sharing here I don’t mean that libraries necessarily work with the ‘same system’, although that is a possibility in some consortial arrangements; they may work with their system instance running in a shared environment.
  3. Leveraging. Here, the shared environment is leveraged to create new services. Network effects are important. So, think of recommendation or analytics services based on aggregate circulation or resolver transactions. Think of the ability to more easily do collaborative collection development based on a shared view of selection and acquisitions patterns. Think of the ability to blend interlibrary loan and circulation. Now, these are things that can be done through aggregation of data or interaction between systems. The ability to do this more readily is increased in this environment, within agreed policy and service frameworks.

Libraries have worked through OCLC to build shared capacity in cataloging, resource sharing and discovery. OCLC has been working to extend these collaborative benefits to other library operations in the form of its Webscale Management Services.
Which brings me back to ALA … My colleague Andrew Pace has been leading this initiative and you can learn more about services and directions at ALA (Webscale or bust, Saturday 1:30 – 3:30 pm, Four Points by Sheraton, Franklin Rooms A-C). The Circulation and Acquisitions components of OCLC’s Web-scale management services will be demonstrated and will shortly be made available to early adopters. See Andrew’s post for some more details.

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