Thursday, August 2, 2012

Cloud What?

Here's how cloud computing is defined by the Wiki:
"Cloud computing is the delivery of computing and storage capacity as a service to a community of end-recipients. The name comes from the use of a cloud-shaped symbol as an abstraction for the complex infrastructure it contains in system diagrams. Cloud computing entrusts services with a user's data, software and computation over a network."
Yeeoouzzza!  That probably means a little to a few.  Let's simplify terms in an effort to reach a better understanding.  We'll start by using an example:
Take that desktop computer sitting under your desk and put it in the datacenter (which I'm going to assume is in the same building as your office).  See that?  Your desktop is now in a private cloud.
Take that same desktop and move it into a datacenter owned by any other company other than your employer.  Where is it now?  It's in the public cloud.

When you read or hear about the "cloud", it's usually in the context of the public cloud.  And this is really another way of talking about something that is accessed over the Internet.  That something can be a software service such as email (Google Gmail), a platform service such as web services, or an infrastructure service such as a virtual server (Amazon EC2).

So why do we have this word "cloud"?  We had hosted email services over the Internet long before anyone coined the term.  Why not just call it Internet-hosted email?  Or Internet-hosted virtual servers? Etc, etc.  I think I know the answer: it's virtualization's fault.  More specifically, it's VMware's fault.

When VMware virtualization started becoming mainstream, there was a desire by many in the IT industry to jump on the next big thing.  And the desire was to jump ahead quickly.  We got server consolidation, okay great!  Now we have hosted dev/test environments, spectacular!  Now have significantly cheaper DR solutions, awesome!  We can now host desktops, especially for apps where Terminal Services doesn't fit the bill (later called VDI).  So what's the next big thing?

My observation is that several IT vendors, led by VMware, have started this cloud trend/marketing machine and most other vendors have jumped aboard the hype train.  Now we have vendors clamoring to be your cloud-based solution and it's almost become a given that everyone is looking at how the cloud can help their organization.

And this is where one of my motivations to write this article comes from.  Is this cloud thing all hype?  No.  There are some scenarios where it does make sense.  A common scenario is the organization with a need that their small (or no) IT staff can fulfill.  There are certainly cases like this where I would have no problem recommending cloud solutions.

One of the common arguments for choosing cloud services/solutions is to free-up IT staff to focus on the job they're supposed to be doing (or something similar to that).  Well, what's really happening is that when companies move an internally hosted solution such as email to the cloud, the CFO want's to know the financial pay-off, the ROI.  In many of these cases, somebody gets fired.  Maybe this wouldn't happen if we weren't in the Great Recession, but that's little comfort to the Exchange admin that just lost his job!

We need to start thinking of cloud solutions as outsourced solutions.  Not as silver-bullets that are going to bring peace and harmony to an otherwise functional IT department.

Here's another point of consideration:  if the vendors pushing cloud solutions are correct, shouldn't all of us IT folks be rushing out to interview with cloud service providers right now?  If the cloud utopia does occur, IT departments will look very different - much smaller with IT admins acting more as liaisons and requiring much less technical knowledge.  It's hard to believe this will really happen and is certainly open for much debate, but food-for-thought nonetheless.

Finally, my advice is this: the next time a vendor is trying to sell you the cloud, ask yourself these questions:

  • What's in it for you?
  • Will it save you money or cost more?  Hard costs?  Soft costs?
  • Is it similar to something you already have in place?  If so how is this "better"?
  • Why is this cloud service/solution better than hosting it in-house, managed by your existing IT team?

Whenever and wherever you encounter the term "cloud" your mental little red flag should pop up and warn you to proceed with caution.  A little up-front technology skepticism will help you make sure that your decision is the right one.  Again, I believe cloud services and solutions can make sense in some cases.  However, I suggest questioning the status quo - don't assume that just because vendor xyz is pushing the technology that its the right for your organization.