When writing the Cloud-computing related book in our Getting Started With … series, (“Getting Started with Cloud Computing“) little did I realize the path I was treading. To illustrate the problems demand-supply mismatches can cause for both suppliers and consumers (and to explain that awful IT-term “provisioning“, which is in the same class as Anglophobe-specials like the noun-usage of “invite”), I wrote

Anyone who has tried to hail a cab in the pouring rain knows the feeling: in the language of economics, if demand exceeds supply, some consumers will either have to do without, or will have to pay a much higher price for the scarce resource.

Elsewhere in the book I also wrote how credit-cards and low-value transactions make pay-per-use that much more likely.

Imagine my surprise when the NY Times described (click here to read the article) “surge pricing”. The article starts with the tale of a hapless passenger paying USD 135 for a 1-mile taxi ride. It goes on to relate that

customers are not shown their fare until the end of the ride, when it is automatically charged to their credit card

Customers, says the NYT, were not happy (!). I, for one, can see why. “Automatically charged” – ouch.

My interest piqued, I went on over the the web-service that’s named by the NYT – uber.com. And if you’re even mildly considering using the cloud for more traditional pay-per-use requirements such as storage, it would be a good idea to do so yourself.

There’s no shortage of success-stories related to elastic supply. But could it be that these are about as common as people who’ve made a killing on a stock market? Imagine the nightmare for the IT department if a geek-form-of-Nick-Leeson copies a few gigabytes from one cloud-storage location to another: and your fine-print-laden contract provides no escape clauses, and bills you for both the traffic and the storage.

That’s not quite an imaginary situation. I had an engineer merrily move a 30 GB file, the results of a random-vibration analysis, across the office network recently. He didn’t realize that it would choke the network, that it would crash the target machine, and so on. Fortunately, there was no “cash” cost.

Uber is pretty interesting.

First off, the “automatic” charge is not so automatic – according to their blog (here) there’s a warning that the rider has to click through before accepting the charge. This is contrary to what the NYT article implies, since if the passenger who supplies the human interest part of their story could do school-grade arithmetic, the jump from 27 USD to 135 USD is pretty straightforward. Oh wait – maybe the bar for school-grade arithmetic drops pretty significantly on New Year’s eve if you’re over the drinking age.

What’s even more interesting is the article here that outlines the pitfalls of one-size-fits-all algorithms. (I haven’t seen the video there. I use no-script, and there’re an awful lot of exceptions you have to make on the page to view the video,. Maybe some day.)

The maths is definitely the area of interest both for the geek and for the prospective cloud-user. There are some articles on the Uber blog that skim the surface, such as this one.

Will your cloud provider give you this information upfront? Will you be able to use it effectively?

I’m willing to bet the answer is “no” to both.