The recent news of Jeff Bezos buying The Washington Post for $250m reminded me of Nicholas Carr’s 2008 bestseller, “The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google”. If Carr’s name is familiar, that may be because he is the Harvard Business Review editor-at-large who famously announced in 2003 that IT no longer mattered. In this book, Carr argues that the evolution of the computer industry strongly parallels the evolution of the electricity industry. He also argues that the availability of low cost, ubiquitous computing will damage many industries, particularly newspapers.
Per “The Big Switch”, people and organizations that needed electricity in the late 19th and early 20th century typically generated their own, in their own power plants. Once centrally generated, network-delivered electricity became available, virtually everyone switched to utility-generated power because it was cheaper and easier. As a result, electricity use became pervasive. Carr then makes the point that the same phenomenon is happening again, this time with utility-managed (a.k.a. cloud) computing.
So what does all this have to do with the New Yorker Hotel? Last month, I found myself staying at the New Yorker to attend, of all things, a cloud computing conference. If you are not familiar with the New Yorker, it was considered an art deco masterpiece when it opened as the city’s largest hotel on 8th Avenue in midtown in 1929. Joe DiMaggio lived there. President Kennedy stayed there. Benny Goodman played there. And, all 2,500 rooms were supported by America’s largest private power plant, which was located down in the sub-basement.
So yes, the owners of the New Yorker may have been some of the last people to resist the allure of centrally generated electricity. A bronze plaque commemorating the power plant was presented to the hotel by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) in 2008 and now occupies a prominent place in the hotel lobby.
According to Wikipedia, the New Yorker’s coal-fired boilers and generators produced more than 2,200 kilowatts of direct current (DC) electric power – and were still in use during the Northeast Blackout of 1965! Boiler steam was also used for building heat and other purposes. The New Yorker eventually switched to utility-generated alternate current (AC) in the late 1960s.
So how ironic is it that I traveled to New York City to attend a cloud-computing event, and I wound up staying at the site of the country’s largest privately owned electrical generating plant? I hope the current owners of the New Yorker have learned from their past and realized the future of cost-effective computing is cloud computing. Just as with electricity, the utility model makes cloud computing cheaper and easier than doing it yourself. I would surely hate to think that the space in the sub-basement of the New Yorker that previously housed the boilers and generators would now be used for … a data center!