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Bottlenecks of the Cloud

Nearly everyone who has written about Yahoo (NASDAQ:YHOO) CEO Marissa Mayer's ban on telecommuting,including me, focused on the cultural or business implications of the move.

But from a technical standpoint, the move also highlights some of the bottlenecks in modern cloud computing. These impact both your business and the businesses you invest in.

First, to secure corporate traffic, even when a worker is at home or on the road, most companies run a Virtual Private Network, or VPN. This encrypts the traffic, hiding it from prying eyes.

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A VPN requires central control. Bits have to pass through the center of the VPN before going on to their designation. So even if you're not commuting into work, your bits are. This creates what network designer Andy Gottlieb called in Network World recently a "trombone effect,"all the bits having to go in-and-out through one central point.

This hub-and-spoke system is analogous to the way old-line airlines like Delta (NYSE:DAL) have worked for years. Traffic comes in, it changes planes, and it goes out again. You can run a network switching center even more efficiently than Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, but as traffic increases -- and it always increases -- the bottleneck just gets worse.

There's a lot of money to be made in helping give VPNs something more akin to a Southwest (NYSE:LUV) route structure, avoiding the central hub but maintaining full security, just going back-and-forth, point-to-point. Maybe Yahoo can help solve this problem with software while they're in the office.

The second bottleneck involves the way last-mile cable broadband networks are designed, including those of Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA) and Time Warner Cable (NYSE:TWX). I helped the industry explain this to its members 15 years ago, and it comes down to this: You're sharing the road.

It's incredibly costly to run fiber to every home, so cable networks get around this by building fiber rings out to neighborhoods. Each edge system feeds copper wires that go to homes, and this edge bandwidth is shared by all those users.

Let's say you're feeding 100 homes which are sharing 100 Megabits-per-second of bandwidth. If just one of those homes has a telecommuter, it's all good. They get all that bandwidth. If there are two telecommuters, each gets 50. If there are 10, each gets 10. And so on.

As telecommuting gains in popularity -- and most homes on a line have at least two workers -- you can see how things slow down. Pile on the problem of "bit commuting" and they slow down a lot.

Then add in the fact that most telecommuters these days are multi-tasking. They may be doing a teleconference in one window, a shared spreadsheet in a second window, and maybe checking out in a third, looking to see what Dana is saying.

What looked like an abundance of bandwidth a decade ago is turning into a shortage. It's seen in the form of a degradation of service to remote workers. This means their productivity is going down.

There are lots of opportunities here. There are opportunities for software companies to improve security for remote workers. There are opportunities for network equipment companies to design things more efficiently.

But there are also costs. The cost of running a truck out to a neighborhood goes up every year -- never mind the cost of equipment and the cost of re-designing cable networks so people get the bandwidth they're supposedly paying for.

When you let people work remotely, you pay all these costs -- for the VPNs, for the bits commuting to your cloud, for the bandwidth running here, there and everywhere. When you force workers into the office, they pick up the tab for those three extra hours -- getting dressed, getting in, getting home -- and we all pay for the resultant road traffic and pollution.

The point is that there are huge opportunities, and some costs, in making telecommuting work better for the worker and for the employer. Yahoo is just calling a time-out on the future while it figures out how to take advantage of it.

At the time of publication, the author was long YHOO.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage

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