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The Meta Cloud - Flying data centers enter fourth dimension

Or do they?

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Just when you thought the cloud metaphor couldn't stretch any further, it has. The tech world is still coming to terms with the rather abstract idea of a data center that floats on air, and now more than a few free-thinking web startups are hoping to abstract the abstraction. Beware of The Meta Cloud.

Today, several high-flying net outfits operate so-called infrastructure clouds - online services that offer processing power, storage, and other distributed resources. Amazon is the obvious example, with its Amazon Web Services (AWS), but others serve up much the same thing, including Flexiscale, GoGrid, and Joyent.

In theory, these clouds give you instant access to an infinite array of compute power. You can grab more cycles, more storage, and more bandwidth whenever you like. But in real life, no resource is infinite. And clouds have been known to vanish from time to time.

What's more, these are far from public resources. Conservative thinkers may be wary of entrusting their entire web infrastructure to a single operation - e.g., Amazon.

So, it comes as no surprise that would-be web visionaries have floated the idea of a meta-cloud - a cloud-of-clouds, if you will. With this extended metaphor, you could access multiple clouds from a single web interface, seamlessly moving tasks from one to the other. If one disappears, another is there. If one disappoints - prices rise or standards fall - you have an out. Resources are still less than infinite, but there are more of them.

At least, that's the pitch.

Meta-Startup

Alex Castro and the cloud go way back. At New York's Cornell University in the mid-90s, he shared a distributed-systems lab with latter-day cloud saint Werner Vogels. And once Vogels made his pilgrimage to the West Coast, conjuring a new cloud for web demigod Jeff Bezos, Castro joined him again, lending a hand with the birth of Amazon Web Services.

Naturally, when Castro started his own web outfit - a video delivery operation dubbed Delve Networks - he decided that Amazon should run at least a portion of his online infrastructure. And just as naturally, he insists that Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud is a godsend.

"We do a lot of heavy computational work to process the video," Castro says. "We do speech recognition and analytics and transcoding - computationally intensive things. So signing up for this theoretically infinite amount of computing capacity just made sense. As our customers need more transcoding, we just spin up more machines, and when they need less transcoding, we just tear those machines down."

But Delve was among those who saw Amazon's cloud disappear for an eight-hour stretch last summer. And Castro can't help but wonder what would happen if his company made a freakish Facebook-like rise into the web's top-ten properties. Is that the point where Amazon's resources would prove less than infinite?

In an ideal world, Delve and other web apps would run on multiple clouds. And that, Castro insists, is a business opportunity. "If I didn't have my hands full with my own company," he says, "I'd launch a new one that offered a cloud of clouds."

He's not alone. According to Intel cloud guru Jason Waxman, countless startups have approached Intel Capital - the company's investment arm - with the idea of a meta-cloud. One of these, Waxman says, was an existing cloud-management operation known as Elastra - though when we phoned the company, it played coy on the matter, saying that some sort of mystery announcement will arrive in the second quarter.

Meanwhile, one philosophical outfit has already launched a meta-cloud. At least, it thinks it has.

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