Here at CloudAve we consider ourselves evangelists for Cloud Computing. We’d hate however to think that we were idealogues. To this end we welcome viewpoints that contrast with our own (heck – we often disagree ourselves). With that in mind we’re please to bring you this guest post by Alan Moore of Definition.
Alan has been working in the IT industry
for over 25 years in both the UK
and New Zealand
and across all areas of the industry. After all this experience he’s beginning to
worry that the gloss might be coming off the IT revolution. Definition is his consultancy company
set up to help people and organizations understand the complexities of the
modern IT world and allow them to use it more effectively.
Cloud Computing is all quite simple – it’s application outsourcing, but I am interested in how we have arrived here. Being a person of maturity I find this shift in solutions focus quite interesting – I’m afraid it’s not that new, it’s all happened before.
Apparently social change cycles in human experience tend to be around 30 years in length. The reason is that’s the time taken to shift through a generation and is when the experience of one generation begins to be lost and allows new things to be considered – interesting.
Let’s have a little history lesson…
Just a bit less than 30 years ago I got into this industry by doing a Cobol programming course. I was a terrible programmer, still am, but I did find I was as good as the lecturer at de-bugging other student’s programs. The levels of detail required for programming I found rather dull and when I saw my first room full of mainframe code-cutters clattering over their green screens I was far from enthused. I thought my problem solving skills meant I would be better in some kind of support role.
I had been messing around with Commodore PET’s (Personal Electronic Transactor!), one of the original PC’s, and loved the rapid turn-around that working with them allowed. I could experiment and see instantly what the effects would be. This seemed far better than the endless batching and waiting that was required in the real world of commercial computing – on mainframes.
Just around that time was when the IBM PC had been launched and I managed to get a job with a burgeoning PC support group in a South London health authority. This was the start of a frantic few years spent jumping from company to company as they each started installing PC’s.
There were a few things that were interesting about what was happening at the time in the companies where I worked:
- They all had large mainframe based IT departments involved in enormous projects.
- Those IT departments were all way behind on providing the solutions promised to the users on the mainframe systems.
- The business managers hated the IT department.
- The PC team was set up to take away the PC noise from the real work being done by IT on the mainframe systems.
- We PC guys were the friends of the business managers – we helped them do what they wanted to do – quickly. We spoke their language.
- PCs were not cheap but they could be bought by managers on their own budgets and this was not viewed as part of IT mainframe based budget.
- As the PC’s took hold the mainframe became less important to the business managers.
- Eventually the PCs would be brought back under the control of the IT department.
- We would then pack up, move out and join a late adopter company and do it all again!
What is interesting is that these circumstances have begun to repeat themselves – check it out. Go through the points above and replace mainframe with PC and PC with application providers.
The technical dynamic is also compelling. We have moved away from big computers in remote data centres connected via dumb terminals to embrace the wide open anarchy of the PC world with all that power at our finger tips. To then move to….. big computers in remote data centres connected via dumb terminals.
Heads in the Clouds?
There is no doubt that the computer industry is excited by cloud computing but as we know all that usually means is that they have found a new channel to sell more gear into!
Don’t get me wrong I think the opportunities that cloud computing offers to businesses are huge but I think the industry’s current rapid growth is more a reflection of the failure of “corporate IT” than it is of any intrinsic benefits that might be available to businesses. How can it help or hinder them?
What are the rewards?
The obvious one is business managers and computer users are at last free to pick and choose the applications that they want without the need to worry about all that messy project implementation stuff. They are sick of the processes imposed on them by the IT department. No user requirements, steering committees, milestone slipping and the usual budget blow-outs.
In fact this technology releases managers from the grip of the vice-like stability that most IT departments have imposed to protect the complexity in their server rooms. All they need now is a terminal that is connected to the Internet. To use the service they can sign up, usually on a monthly / per user basis, and start using the application. It’s perfect for monthly budgeting.
All the issues of scalability and system resilience go away because the contract will protect them from that, and they won’t mind paying extra if they want to increase that protection in the future.
Doesn’t get much better than that – or does it?
What are the risks?
Much has already been written about the risks of betting your business on a burgeoning industry but I don’t think these can be overstressed.
Business people, historically, do not understand the complexities of the IT industry and are quite willing to gloss over the details when selecting solutions. Cloud computing was made for this scenario, the ability to attract customers with fancy screens and implied logic is far easier when the solution is buried in a data centre in the back and beyond.
At least with an installation in an IT department there is an opportunity to apply a level of technical due diligence before it’s turned on. The fact that a lot of the time that process fails is another problem – and has contributed enormously to the failure of IT.
Having had much experience of the wild world of software entrepreneurship I would guess most customers would never sign up to these solutions if they really understood how shonky most start-up solutions are. The risk of committing to a service that has been designed badly is even greater with a cloud application, and the problems will always occur after you’ve entered all your lovely data.
Even when the solution has proven its worth customers have no protection against the commercial activities of their service provider. What happens if they are sold, merge or acquire other companies, what happens if the business model doesn’t stacks up?
One example of this was Pandesic a much heralded joint venture set up at the end of the 90’s between two industry giants – they went bust and apparently gave their customers a month’s notice of termination of service. They assisted their customers to work through the removal of their service but trust me if you’ve committed your business to an application the last thing you want to do is open an email and see all your data in a flat file attachment along with a refund of next months pre-paid subscriptions – if you’re lucky!
I know most of these issues will be sorted out and for them to succeed I’m sure the good companies will rise to the top but there is another risk to those customers.
It goes back to the economics of outsourcing. Organisations should outsource the services that don’t contribute to their core activities (like cleaning and payroll) – but I think we will see a growing move towards committing primary activities to software services companies and that’s really scary.
If, for a multitude of reasons, they become incompatible how is a customer going to deal with it? Trust me it’s hard enough to successfully move data around your own computer room never mind from a data centre in Minnesota to one in Kazakhstan through two companies who see themselves as competitors. While still trying to carry on your normal business activities of course.
I worry customers choosing to risk their business on their favourite cloud application make lambs on the way to the slaughterhouse look invincible!
The message I have, for the cloud industry, is that if this is all going to work they have a huge responsibility to their customers. To demonstrate levels of forethought and trust along with moral and commercial integrity that far exceeds those shown by the current IT industry.
I hope it’s a generational thing – but only time will tell.