New Delhi — A lack of access to affordable broadband and data servers in developing countries severely limits the scope of 'cloud computing' that uses vast, shared virtual servers instead of localised hardware to run applications and store data, according to a UN report.
Cloud computing enables users to access flexible data storage and computing resources as and when required, and is considered to be among the most significant disruptive technologies over the next two decades, with major implications for markets, economies and societies, says the report published by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) this month (3 December).
It notes that, while people in developing countries use free cloud services, such as webmail and online social networks, the scope for cloud computing adoption is much smaller than in developed countries.
A major reason is the widening gap in the availability of cloud-computing related infrastructure, including affordable broadband networks, between developed and developing countries.
Many low-income countries rely on mobile broadband networks that are not ideal for cloud computing because of their low-speed, and access to affordable broadband is especially poor in the least developed countries (LDCs), it says.
Another factor that keeps developing countries from fully benefiting from cloud computing is a growing divide in the number of data centres - facilities that house computer infrastructure; and store, manage and process digital data.
In 2011, for example, there were 1,000 times more secure data servers per million people in developed countries than in LDCs, and developed countries accounted for 85 per cent of data centres, the report says.
The report suggests that developed countries should offer technical and financial help for cloud-related infrastructure in poorer countries, while developing countries should themselves address legal and regulatory concerns over cloud computing, data protection and cyber crime.
Torbjörn Fredriksson, chief of the ICT analysis section at UNCTAD, tells SciDev.Net: "In countries where national broadband coverage is inadequate, but where mobile connectivity is widespread, there may be opportunities to leverage a combination of cloud and mobile services".
He cites the example of mothers2mothers, a US-based NGO that has combined the cloud with database technology and mobile services to digitise the records of HIV patients, including information on treatment plans, and share them with counsellors across its network of more than 700 sites in Africa.
Similarly, Kenya's M-Pesa, a mobile-based money transfer and microfinancing service, uses cloud computing to help people deposit, withdraw and transfer money and pay bills over mobile phones.
"Cloud computing is recognised as a future technological direction ... and its adoption is inevitable," says Srinivasan Ramakrishnan, former director general of the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing in Pune, India, and currently with the country's National Institute for Smart Government (NISG) in Hyderabad.
"But on the flip side, there are several regulatory issues, including data security and privacy, which need to be resolved before the technology stabilises," he adds.
Vineeta Dixit, principal consultant for the e-governance plan at India's Department of Electronics and Information Technology, says that cloud computing offers several opportunities for developing countries, such as the rapid replication of successful initiatives and applications across departments and states.
This is because applications can be hosted at one location and accessed by many, Dixit says.
Also, government agencies can use existing private-sector cloud solutions for many services, including feedback from citizens to evaluate quality of public services.
But Dixit also highlights the need to address the "critical factors" of data security and privacy.
"In most developing and emerging economies, legal and regulatory frameworks are not in place to adequately address issues related to data protection and privacy.
Since most cloud services are currently hosted in a handful of countries, parallel to these concerns are concerns related to commercial secrecy and national security," she says.
And the use of cloud technologies does not fully address the digital divide, she adds, "as the countries still need the basic telecom infrastructure to realise the benefits of the cloud technologies."