The gig economy has come to IT.
Long ago, in the halcyon days of the 1990’s, when people still distinguished between the World Wide Web and the Internet, it was not uncommon for websites, even relatively high-traffic websites, to be run from a computer in a person’s house. Websites were simpler back then, usually just a couple of text files and some pictures. A “database-driven” website usually meant that you could leave a comment, and Amazon was a rinky dink online bookseller that couldn’t seem to turn a profit.
Hobbyists and professionals alike would install a webserver on their personal computer and install this new-fangled Linux operating system to stand up a simple personal website. Some of these sites are still up today, by sheer inertia. It wasn’t much, but it had more technical cache than Geocities, and was a rite of passage for many an upcoming IT professional.
Then came the age of the cloud, when you could host a website for free or for very low cost at a variety of companies, or pay Amazon or Microsoft a few bucks a month to rent you a virtual machine that took up no space in your house, and cost to you in electricity. Why would we ever go back?
Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?
Fast forward to our current financial crisis. The summer of 2020 saw unemployment on a scale not seen in living memory in the US, and the collapse of whole sectors of the economy. Tens of millions of people were suddenly out of work, and the ripple effect moved out as creative entrepreneurs tried to find a way to wring a few more dollars out of their lives. More than one person is wondering how they were going to make rent this month looked at their home lab, and decided rather than putting the whole lot on eBay, what if they rented it out?
The market is evolving fast enough that it will have changed by the time I finish writing this sentence. Right now, there’s a variety of services you can buy at rock-bottom prices. From colocation of servers to renting disk space for off-site backups, both amateurs and professionals are trying to find someone who is willing to pay for the use of their equipment. A quick survey of Craigslist, Facebook, and other sites reveals that these groups fall into a handful of categories:
1) Colocation: Some just wants to house your computer. Offering to host servers or virtual workstations, they’ll beat the price of a datacenter, and deal with the noise, the heat, the power requirements. Encrypted hard disks make sending a fully-operational machine into somebody else’s care more practical than it ever has been before.
2) Rent-a-VM: A quick hypervisor and fancy web gateway for RDP or VNC, and you can let users have their very own desktop in the cloud. Whether you VPN or connect direct, some people just want a computer out on the Internet that they can connect to from anywhere, and that’s what this group provides.
3) Storage Centers: Like renting space in somebody’s basement, Storage Centers compete with S3 and its ilk to give users a simple FTP node to upload and download files from. Charging a cent or two on the Gigabyte, they usually advertise as easy off-site storage for backups, or just a place to store your files where Google or Amazon won’t riffle through them looking for insight into your buying habits
This cottage industry (or Cottage-Location to coin a phrase) is still in its infancy. Whether it will survive the current economic downturn is uncertain, and how long it might continue afterwards even more so. The core of the gig economy in the early 21st century is convincing workers to use the capital assets they have to serve each other and make a dollar off it on the way (with our Uber-AirBnb-WeWork-etc overlords getting their cut.) It was only a matter of time until it reached Information Technology, and we’re still in the dawning period where its disparate enough that no corporation has stood up to the be Uber for this new generation.
We’ll be keeping an eye on this trend going forward.