Your next computer could be in a data center

Computers have become more powerful and more portable, letting you execute some compute-intensive tasks on your laptop. But internet connections have also become incredibly faster, making it much easier to outsource some tasks to servers sitting in a data center.

Most of the apps on your phone already rely on a server component to store and process your data. When you post a video on Facebook, it gets re-encoded into multiple formats on the server so that other users can stream your video in SD, HD, etc.

But I think this trend is going to become even more important in the coming years, with all your devices acting as a simple screen into your stuff running on servers in data centers near you.

First, internet connection speeds and latency need to improve drastically for everyone. I’m lucky that I live in Paris, a dense city with efficient infrastructure. I get around 800 Mbps and 250 Mbps of download and upload speeds at home. And I can ping all data centers around Paris in less than 2 milliseconds with a wired connection.

Second, I’ve valued portability over specs for years. I’m currently typing this article on the tiny 12-inch MacBook. It’s a lightweight, fanless device that is more or less as powerful as the MacBook Pro I was previously using.

Raw performance has more or less stagnated for laptops if you opt for the lightest device you can get. At the same time, more tasks are relying on powerful graphics processing units. Creative people manage bigger photos and 4K video footage. Even your browser has become more demanding.

Third, companies need to develop services that everybody can use without any coding experience. For instance Adobe could release thin clients of Photoshop, Premiere Pro and other apps with all the heavy work happening on a server. I feel like Adobe’s subscription model is the perfect opportunity to try this with an optional add-on.

Even without reinventing the wheel, some companies are innovating in this space. French startup Blade is working on a service called Shadow, mostly for cloud gaming. It is running thousands of virtual machines on server-grade Intel Xeon processors with a dedicated Nvidia GTX 1070 for each user. You can get your personal instance for around $32.70 per month (€30).

At first, I was quite skeptical as cloud gaming has never worked perfectly well due to latency, image compression and restrictions. But in this case, you get a full-fledged Windows 10 desktop environment with great network performances.

The company has just released Windows and Android apps, and it is currently working on a macOS app as well as a dedicated device with a cheap CPU and all the ports you need. This way, you don’t even need to have an existing computer to connect to your virtual machine on Shadow’s servers.

After a few minutes running the Windows app on my Windows computer, I got confused and realized I needed to use two different wallpapers because I couldn’t tell if I was interacting with my local computer or the virtual machine running in Shadow’s data center near Paris.

When you run a game on your Shadow instance, your laptop fan remains silent because not much is happening on your local computer. It’s one of the most telling examples of outsourcing compute-intensive tasks. These companies will have to make sure they have a rock-solid privacy policy and security system.

CPUs, GPUs and SSDs are still going to get better over time. These innovations will mostly benefit cloud companies so that they can provide better servers.

Conversely, infrastructure is going to become increasingly important as LTE and constrained fiber-optics internet connections won’t cut it anymore. You’ll want gigabit connections on all your devices. And then, it’ll feel like you’re living in the future.