Containers and Clouds (Guest post from Gerald Haigh)

Guest post from Gerald Haigh. Gerald writes regularly for the Microsoft education series of blogs.

I spent a lot of time on our holiday this year just standing at the rail of our cruise ship watching the sea. For me, it’s the ultimate stress reliever. Sometimes our ship was alone, horizon to horizon, even in ostensibly busy sea lanes. Often, though, there’d be a containership around probably belonging to the giant Maersk organisation, the biggest container shipping line in the world, with 530 ships that shift between them 12 million containers a year.

The container revolution, because that’s what it is, started back in the Fifties, growing slowly and lowering shipping rates to the point where manufacturers across the world now hardly need to consider transport costs. Along the way, working and social lives of most of the world have changed. Look around the room you’re in now and the likelihood is that the things around you, that your grandparents hardly ever saw, let alone bought, spent some time at sea in a container.


The comparison with the computer revolution is compelling. Containers were originally used to streamline existing port and ship practice. There were sceptics of course, and a very real fear of job losses. Many port and harbour authorities either could not or would not afford the level of investment that containerisation implied. Some openly believed it to be a passing fad, others wanted to get away with tweaks and adjustments.

Only a few realised that the old ways – traditional ports for ships laboriously loaded and unloaded by stevedores – would have to be abandoned and billions poured (boldly and riskily) into new container ports and huge ships. It was as much about imagination and vision as about the technology. Where the vision was right, and the risks embraced, old ports – Manhattan, Brooklyn, London – faded and new names appeared – Port Newark in New Jersey, Felixstowe, Rotterdam, Shenzhen. There, mega ships, crewed by 20 people each, are turned round in hours rather than days, containers moving between ships, trains and trucks in a process so automated that the ports look deserted at first glance.

I guess that, in our digital world, we are somewhere on a similar journey from tweak to transformation. The same obstacles are there – scepticism, reluctance to invest in the unfamiliar, a belief that it’s all just a way of doing the old things a bit more quickly and easily. The sense that there’s a new world out there is, I’d say, only just beginning to take root. A major driver, surely, is the growth of cloud technology which, could be the digital equivalent of containerisation, offering rapid communication, easy transfer of ideas and information to the point where everything will change – jobs, the structure of firms and organisations, the way all of us, not just our young people, are educated and cared for. Containers and the cloud are both drivers of globalisation.

There’s an interesting footnote to this story, to do with challenge that Maersk has in managing hundreds of ships and millions of containers across the world. Clearly it’s a job for information technology, and sure enough, last year the firm invested in a Microsoft solution that helps them make sense of the mass of data sitting on their mainframes that would otherwise risk becoming overwhelming, saving them millions of dollars a year. A Microsoft Showcase video features Maersk Director Steffen Conradsen explaining problems and solutions – the need to pull out and visualise data, and home in on what’s going right or wrong,

‘Using simple traffic light colour coding we single out those areas that stand out then go in and analyse in depth so we can do the right things at the right time.’

School leaders and teachers will find that very familiar, right down to the traffic light colour coding.

All of this, emphasises Mr Conradsen, is done using standard Microsoft tools that are familiar in-house and across the world.

On another note, a good book on containerisation, with many general lessons about innovation - ‘The Box’ by economist Marc Levinson

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