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Outside the boxA veteran CIO recounted to me recently how responsive her IT organization has become once they started separating the data from the hardware. Before, it was common to have a hard drive failure and find out the user has not done a backup. Once they put the data in the cloud (private cloud, in this case), they became a very effective and responsive service center. No matter what happened to the hardware, they could restore the user data to a new device.

I thought about this story when I read what Dropbox CEO told Wired magazine: “We are replacing the hard drive. I don’t mean that you’re going to unscrew your MacBook and find a Dropbox inside, but the spiritual successor to the hard drive is what we’re launching.”

Spiritual successor to the hard drive? In what way? I would argue that Dropox, Box, and China’s Kanbox, to name a few prominent (and similarly mislabeled) cloud storage providers,

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are the spiritual successors to the IBM team that invented the hard drive as a solution to a business problem, a new way for businesses to access their growing piles of data.

A solution to a business problem

Seventy years ago, Arthur J. Critchlow, a young member of IBM’s advanced technologies research lab in San Jose, California, was assigned the task of finding a better data storage medium than punch-cards. IBM saw the task as a response to an emerging business need, not just a technology challenge. Visiting a number of customers, Critchlow learned that punch-card equipment performed well when the processing of information could be done in batches or sequentially stored information but became problematic when random access was needed.

Inventory control was such an activity. In warehouse operations, for example, each order typically required several cards to be manually located, removed from a stack of cards, the inventory information updated, and the updated cards returned to their original locations. To facilitate this activity, drawers of cards were set out on work tables so that several people could access cards from the same file. This manner of organizing and processing information, widely known as the “tub file,” was time consuming and error-prone.

The IBM project’s staff evaluated every existing storage technology in an attempt to find the best technological solution to the loss of productivity and poor quality associated with “tub files.” In addition to superior capacity and reliability, the storage technology eventually selected—magnetic disks—could provide random access to information. A new method (encoded in software) for finding stored data when its physical location on the disk was unknown, ensured the success of the new way to store, organize, and share business records.

In September 1956, IBM launched the first product to incorporate disk storage. The “box” came with fifty 24-inch disks for a total capacity of 5 megabytes, weighed 1 ton, and could be leased for $3,200 per month ($27,482 in today’s dollars).

Cloud storage

The hard drive was a technological response to a new business need and it launched a new industry. Similarly, cloud storage (and cloud computing) is a response to the new ways by which organizations—and most importantly, individuals—organize, consume, update and share information.

This is still not obvious to people who are mystified by this cloud-thing and are clinging to their familiar boxes. In “Sorry, Dropbox: The Hard Drive Is Here to Stay,” ReadWrite listed all the “known” challenges of cloud-based providers such as “they rely on the Internet,” “they’re pricey,” and they have issues with security and privacy. It concluded: “Dropbox is a useful service, especially for sharing the occasional file… But replacing the hard drive as the ultimate stash for ordinary consumers’ personal files? That goes way too far.”

Cloud storage is not only fast becoming the preferred place to “stash” consumer files, it is also steadily penetrating the enterprise. According to CIO Journal, Dell’s CIO is one of Dropbox’s 2 million enterprise accounts. She says: “My users need that capability. All of a sudden, the business comes to you instead of finding shadow IT.” Aaron Levie, the CEO of Box, another consumer-turned-enterprise-vendor successfully separating the data from the hardware, advises CIOs to experiment with “shallow IT.” Levie recommends testing technologies around the edges to understand where and how they can deliver value before fully committing to them.

While Levie probably sees IT experimentation as a perfect Trojan Horse strategy for his company’s growing enterprise penetration, I would argue that experimentation is the perfect IT strategy for all businesses today. Cloud computing is the means by which IT can experiment, scaling up and down its resources to fit the task at hand. And a lot of experimentation is required given the new ways—mobile, distributed, individualized—by which information is created, moved, and shared.

Seventy years ago the business world moved from file cabinets to computer storage because its rapidly growing use of rapidly increasing data volumes required random access by multiple people to the same piece of information. Today, enterprises are moving from boxes and containers of digital data defined and delimited by processes and functions to data that is defined by the individuals using it. Data that is separated from the hardware, data with no limits regarding size, number of users, access device, access location or any other previous constraint. Data without borders.