The year is 1882. Thomas Edison is competing with George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla to bring electric power to the consumer. He speaks to his lawyer about the project.
Edison: “I’ve got this idea. I want to bring electric power to every residence in Manhattan.”
Lawyer: “It can’t be done!”
Edison: “Sorry, that’s my bad ear – I couldn’t hear what you said. Anyway, what we will do is build these huge turbines powered by dams or coal. These will in turn drive large generators which will transmit electricity to transformers and then deliver it for home use. Cool, huh?”
Lawyer: “I’m telling you, it can’t be done. And even if it could, do you understand the multitude of legal issues, potential liabilities, contracts that would need to be negotiated, rights-of-way and other approvals we would need to receive?”
Edison: “What? Quit speaking into my bad ear. It will be great! Bringing electric power to the home will create new businesses and other opportunities to benefit mankind.”
Lawyer: “That sounds a tad bit nebulous. You haven’t actually invented anything yet to use this electricity – have you?”
Edison: “Sorry, still can’t hear you. Can you have all the legal stuff done by Friday?”
This year, we went live with the Sun Grid. For those of you not familiar with the concept, a compute grid is an aggregation of horizontally-scaled computers with storage and software. Combined they provide significant compute power. And, with the Sun Grid, that power is available to companies, developers and individual users, over the Internet, with payment by credit card or PayPal. No 200 page agreement – just a “click and accept” license.
To illustrate the concept of the Sun Grid, we frequently point to the development of consumer electric power at the turn of the 20th century. At that time, Westinghouse, Edison and Tesla were battling with competing solutions – AC or DC or AC/DC (sorry, couldn’t resist). The complexity of these solutions, including the creation of hydroelectric plants, enormous turbines and transformers and wiring of cities and homes must have seemed insurmountable to all but these three talented individuals. And the potential use of electric power was certainly unimaginable to everyday consumers. Yet, a little more than a century later, we plug an appliance into a socket and it works. I don’t know about you, but I’m not too interested in who manufactured the generators or electrical lines that carry the electricity I use – I just want it to work. (By the way, a good book on this subject is “Empires of Light”).
The idea behind the Sun Grid is that in the future, just as with electric power, individuals will access their compute power, software applications and storage over the Internet. It is an intriguing idea that presents an interesting, but complex array of legal and regulatory challenges. In the course of developing the Sun Grid we have had to consider legal issues involving: data privacy, data security, regulations applicable to on-line commerce, DMCA, tax, Sarbanes-Oxley, Digital Rights Management, state and federal consumer protection statutes, licensing of third-party applications in a hosted environment and US export controls. We have also looked at laws that are applicable to certain types of customers and markets. For example, there are specific legal frameworks that apply to certain heavily regulated industries such as banking (Graham Leach Bliley) and health care (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act). And, the number of laws and regulations we will need to consider will only increase as the Sun Grid becomes available outside the US.
Thankfully, (although I’m sure they felt like Mr. Edison’s lawyer at first), we have some very talented people who quietly, behind the scenes are getting the job done.