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Sharp mind for cloudy thinking

Jim Reavis (’87) is focused on the future of computing

Story by Matthew Anderson ('06)

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But how will we make sure our digital data is safe when we don’t know where it’s kept? Will there be just one entrance to the cloud, or many to choose from? As founder of the Cloud Security Alliance, Jim Reavis is helping industry leaders address these questions.

Sidebar: Reavis got his start tinkering on the VAX

Reavis got his start tinkering on the VAX

"It’s probably going to change every industry we know. It’s revolutionary.”

That’s Jim Reavis (’87, Business Administration/ Computer Science) talking about the cloud computing revolution, in which the computers at our fingertips become part of a vast network of computing service providers. Our software, computing power, and even – gulp – our digital data are kept on someone else’s computer. Or, more likely, many computers.

Essentially, cloud computing allows us to buy computing power like we buy electrical power; a company will need its own server farm as much as a house will need its own wind farm. Its impact on advancing productivity in the computing world can’t be overestimated, Reavis says.

But how will we make sure our digital data is safe when we don’t know where it’s kept? Will there be just one entrance to the cloud, or many to choose from? As founder of the Cloud Security Alliance, Reavis is helping industry leaders address these questions.

Why is cloud computing such a big deal?

For one thing, it’s turning the business world on its head by removing much of the overhead and risk of starting a new business. Using the cloud, entrepreneurs can simply rent the computers and software they need to get started.

“You can have an idea for a new service on Monday, program it by Wednesday, beta-test it on Thursday and potentially by the next week have a whole new product,” Reavis says.

That’s a benefit enjoyed by businesses and consumers alike, he adds. And cloud standards will answer traditional concerns of online privacy and security, Reavis says, if they’re implemented right.

What is the cloud?

Reavis likes the electricity analogy.

“Back in the early 1900s, we didn’t have a pervasive electrical utility, so each organization had to create its own power-generation source to drive its machinery,” he says.

But if someone else provides the energy source, a modern company’s job is much simpler.

“With electricity, you just plug an appliance in, and it works,” Reavis says. “Cloud computing is the same way. If you have a service you want to provide to the entire world, you can go rent what you need on the cloud and plug into it.”

What is the Cloud Security Alliance’s part in all this?

In building the alliance, Reavis emulated the model of Facebook, allowing users to join and collaborate on topics that interest them. Together, they discuss and find solutions for securing the cloud.

“In some cases, it means we create research documents that a Google or a Microsoft can use or that a large Fortune 500 bank can use for best practices,” he says. “In other cases we’re advising governments on what they should do.”

And it’s working.

“With no hesitation at all are we seeing the large tech companies, as well as the large Fortune 500 companies from every industry, come to us,” Reavis says. “What they understand is that for this to work, we have to have an agreed-upon set of standards. This has to work on a global scale. The economics of cloud computing don’t work if you’re only offering this to one country or one industry. You have to provide these services pretty ubiquitously to build that economy of scale.”

What does the future look like?

“We’re on the brink of a lot of change,” Reavis says. “Soon we’ll see mass adoption of certain types of cloud computing configurations, operating systems and standards that will likely be used for generations, so it’s important that we act right now not only to secure those decisions but to create some choice so that people don’t get locked in.”

Matthew Anderson (’06, Journalism) is Western’s New Media Coordinator.