Tim Lavengood, who is neither weatherman nor rainmaker, is contemplating a cloud.
As director of the Technology Innovation Center (also known as The Incubator) at 820 Davis St., Mr. Lavengood makes no little plans. He is currently laying the groundwork for building at TIC a computing “cloud” so impressive he says it will attract young technology companies to Evanston – and, later, persuade them to stay.
He sees “cloud computing,” a concept that is taking the digital world by storm, as a key to economic development in Evanston. The “cloud” concept, says Mr. Lavengood, is in fact a re-vision of an old idea pioneered by University of Illinois graduate Marc Andreessen, whose Mosaic was the first Internet browser. Mr. Lavengood says Mr. Andreessen envisioned a system using “small, passive machines with all their software and storage on servers and an infinite number of tools.”
The self-contained personal computers of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates eclipsed Mr. Andreessen’s paradigm. Their cost, however, can be prohibitive for some small businesses and their capacity too limited for others. Mr. Andreessen’s notion, says Mr. Lavengood, has essentially come full circle in the guise of the “cloud.”
“Cloud computing,” says Mr. Lavengood, is “one of the most interesting developments with the Internet in years.” In this model, software and storage exist not on an individual computer but on a large, centralized server or servers – the “cloud” – where they can be accessed as needed with a browser that connects to the Internet. The “server farms” of companies like Google, scattered around the country where acreage is available, consist not of vapor but of millions of square feet of servers amid the tightest security.
Google is an example of a company “putting tens of thousands of applications on a cloud,” says Mr. Lavengood. Users can assemble these functions “like an infinitely large tool kit” to do what they want, he says.
Some say the term “cloud” derives from the cloud symbol often used to represent the Internet in flowcharts and diagrams; others claim it alludes to a system where data and applications exist on a “cloud” of Web servers.
Whatever its linguistic origin, the creation of a cloud is the centerpiece of a “three- to four-year plan” Mr. Lavengood says will “make TIC the best place north of the [Chicago] Loop for early-stage technology companies.”
Some 36 of these start-ups are presently tenants of TIC, which nurtures them by providing legal assistance, help with product design and, recently, by bringing in the increased bandwidth they need to run simulations and games under development.
Several features of cloud computing make it particularly appealing to young technology ventures. First, it brings down the cost of hardware by providing massive storage capacity outside a personal computer. Individual terminals need only enough power to connect to the Internet, which provides access to the cloud. The fact that files are stored on a central server obviates the need for a large hard drive. The TIC cloud will not need room in Evanston, Mr. Lavengood says; its software and data will all be “housed on the servers of the service-providers.”
Second, the cloud relieves growing start-ups of the financial burden of buying software and licenses for each additional employee. Instead, individuals can access software from the remote server as they need it, choosing from a wider menu of applications than one small company could afford and paying for only what they use.
A TIC cloud, says Mr. Lavengood, would gather “a suite” of software applications especially tailored to “address the most common weakness” of technology start-ups: administration. By putting in place systems to deal with issues like taxes, aging receivables and the collateralization of assets, he says, cloud computing could help “create strong administration capacity in a start-up much earlier than before.” It also frees up company principals, who are usually inventors, not accountants, to do what they do best.
Mr. Lavengood presented his proposal for the TIC cloud to the Evanston Economic Development Committee last month. The City has agreed to help fund the venture, says Mr. Lavengood, but the Council has not yet voted on an amount.
“Initial costs [of building the cloud] will not be high,” he says. The Incubator will begin by “select[ing] a suite of tools and ensur[ing] that they are interoperable.” These tools, like the increased broadband the TIC has already brought in, will be available for purchase on demand by small companies and should still be less expensive than buying their own software and licenses.
Twenty-four companies employing more than 400 people have moved on from the Incubator but remained in Evanston. Mr. Lavengood would like to see the trend continue. Providing services that can grow with a company, he says, is a good way for TIC to “build lasting ties” and partner with them “throughout their life cycle.”
With a TIC cloud on the horizon, “there’s no reason we can’t be the best [destination] for technology companies that need these services,” he says.