The afternoon seminar was penciled into a full slate of educational sessions, its title hastily printed onto a scrap of paper and pasted onto a placard. It had an exuberant ring to it: "Extreme Computing in the Cloud ... How to Get It for Free!"
The tiny room in New York's cavernous Jacob K. Javits Convention Center was packed. Michael O'Neill, business developer at Nvidia, which makes graphic processing units for the gaming industry, was the moderator.
"How many people are here because of the word free?" O'Neill asked.
Cloud Expo, held this week, featured topics ranging from big data analytics to the fast-expanding internet of things to the aforementioned "extreme computing." It drew the heavy lifters of IT -- coders, application developers, architects and a smattering of managers -- but the message to CIOs and other execs was clear: Cloud computing's power and scale are in high demand in today's digital environment.
"It's there, it's growing, it's big," said Dave Landa, COO at Kintone, a business application platform developer, in a panel discussion on the use and scope of the cloud today. "It enables a tremendous amount of connectivity from devices to platforms, and it's an essential part of every technological innovation that's moving forward."
That may sound self-serving coming from a cloud vendor -- and it is -- but with research outfits such as IDC predicting worldwide public cloud spending to grow six times as much as overall IT spending between 2015 and 2019, it's also hard to dismiss.
Rebecca Nadolny was at the extreme-computing session. She isn't in IT -- she works in the archives of research institution Nokia Bell Labs -- but has a big interest in the computational and storage capacities of the cloud. She's taking Coursera classes in data science to prepare for a post-retirement gig as a public policy analyst.
Meanwhile, on the data science competition platform Kaggle, Nadolny is part of a team determining the best routes for forklift operators in a big-box retailer warehouse to pick up and drop off pallets stuffed with products. Speaker O'Neill described extreme computing as a way to "maximize the throughput of an entire system by using many different layers within your system." Machine learning and artificial intelligence are examples, he said. It's free for a specified time through programs like Amazon Web Services' AWS Activate.and Nvidia's Inception; IBM and Microsoft offer similar programs.
"Right now we're just using Excel spreadsheets, and we can do exploratory research and analysis on our own laptops," Nadolny said. "But ultimately we are going to need a larger memory in order to do the computation."
As with any technology, cloud computing holds not only promise but also challenges for practitioners.
Roger Woods, product strategy director at Adobe, led a talk at Cloud Expo on offering exemplary customer experience on mobile devices. He said that while users are doing more on mobile devices -- with shopping by smartphone and tablets outstripping shopping on desktop computers on the Black Friday commercial holiday last year -- just 34% of companies have "a defined mobile strategy" -- that is, one built on mobile from the ground up.
That percentage sounded big to Patricia Palacio, disaster recovery architect at IT services provider Cognizant, but she understands the problem well.
"Mobility is one of my big headaches today," she said. Offering disaster recovery is the easy part; the hard part is getting those recovered services to end users on their mobile devices. For Cognizant, it's a work in progress.
"We can recover your data and your data center," Palacio said. "You can run your business, but are users really going to be able to get to your business when you're running?"
Another cloud sector overflowing with opportunities and obstacles is the internet of things, or IoT. Lisa Jung was at Cloud Expo to learn from speakers and peers. She's the business development officer at Trendalyze, which sells an analytics and monitoring platform. The company focuses on multiple industries -- healthcare, manufacturing and environmental monitoring -- to help find patterns in data coming from internet-connected devices.
A challenge with doing work on the internet of things today, Jung said, is rooted in the sheer newness of the technology.
"Most businesses are at the cusp of learning the importance of IoT and the ROI that they can derive from it," Jung said. "It's hard for clients to fully understand where that comes into play."
For example, Trendalyze is working with a company that monitors patients in telehealth, healthcare services delivered over telecommunications channels such as video conferencing. Some patients might not speak English, so Trendalyze partners with another company to provide translation services.
The goal is addressing needs customers "didn't even know that they had," Jung said.
"And that could only be possible when people from different businesses, from different sectors really come together and talk about, 'OK, what can you do?' 'What can I do?' 'Let's work together.'"
CIO news roundup for week of June 6
Cloud Expo happened this week; here's what grabbed tech headlines.
- The French government launched an app this week that alerts users of a terrorist attack, just days before the European Soccer Championship kicked off in Paris on Friday. Eight months after deadly attacks rocked the capital, security is at unprecedented levels, with 42,000 police and thousands more special-forces personnel on watch. Nearly 2.5 million visitors are expected for the month-long tournament.
- Search engine queries may someday lead to early detection of cancer. Microsoft researchers analyzing queries done on search engine Bing have shown that they may be able to pick out internet users who have pancreatic cancer. The study, conducted by Eric Horvitz and Ryen White, was published in The Journal of Oncology Practice on Tuesday. "The question, 'What might we do? Might there be a Cortana for health some day?'" Horvitz said.
- Hacking into a Twitter was as easy as 123456. The numerical sequence was found to be the most common password in a recent heist of nearly 33 million Twitter usernames and passcodes, according to LeakedSource. Next up was "123456789," "qwerty" and "password." The culprit is a user called Tessa88, who likely swiped the credentials using malware on people's computers. Twitter said its systems weren't breached, and that it is working with LeakedSource to secure users' accounts.
- Tech financier Thomas J. Perkins died at 84 after a long illness. He founded the venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers in Silicon Valley in 1972 and over the years helped cultivate the region into a technology mecca. Perkins was an early investor in the biotech industry, serving as chairman at Genentech Inc., and was on the boards of Hewlett-Packard and Compaq Computer Corp.
Check out our previous Searchlight roundups on the security skills gap highlighted by breaches at Myspace and Tumblr and Microsoft's curtailment of its smartphone division.
Industry change on display at Cloud Expo
Containers, security still hottest of cloud topics
How public cloud vendors are evolving in 2016