Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Cloud

I was asked by several folks what I thought about "the cloud" and what it means for the future of IT, business, culture, society, and so on.  One reader (Randy, thank you!) asked if I would take a minute to write something on it.  I've been poking at this subject with a stick like a three year old curiously prodding a jelly fish washed ashore.

First: Caveats and Disclaimers:  I don't work with cloud technologies.  I don't have any clients that use what I would call "significant" cloud services.

The closest thing to cloud services I've used is Gmail, Google Docs, Google Calendar, Picasa, Flickr, Facebook, Twitter and Blogger.  Some of these only remotely qualify as a "cloud" service, while others fit the bill pretty well (Gmail and Google Docs, for example).

But what is it?

Wikipedia (everybody's authoritative source, right?  heh heh) defines it as "Cloud computing is Internet-based computing, whereby shared resources, software and information are provided to computers and other devices on-demand, like electricity"

That's better, but it still doesn't make it crystal clear to a lot of people.  This is like many IT terms which those working inside the club have an inate, yet unwritten understanding of.

To me, a cloud service is when you rely on something hosted over the Internet that you would have traditionally relied on from within your own facilities.  E-mail, document management, CRM, timekeeping, HRIS, accounting, finance, contracts, payroll services, benefits management, and so on.  The degree to which "relies" becomes involved is subjective.  Is it "cloud" oriented to share and mark-up engineering drawings within a collaborative web portal?  Or is it "cloud" when the engineering drawing application itself resides on an external web portal along with the drawings?  The answer is "yes".  It's a vague term, but it gets kicked around so much that many are left just nodding as if they get it, when secretly they don't feel very confident about it.  It's not a confident monicker.

But what is it good for?

That's up to you.  What is a truck good for?  To you it helps with shopping and carrying lawn care materials home.  To a business it means resource distribution and logistics management.  To a club it means carrying a team down a country road to meet for important events.  For a football team it carries the mascots and cheerleaders across the field at half-time.

It's a tool.  Just like computers, networks, software, and wires.  They're all tools.  What they are good for is a matter of what you need them for.

Some people may find cloud services of extremely powerful use to them.  Others may find it uninteresting.  Some may want to try it out and see where it fits into their overall needs.  Some will shy away from it citing regulatory or security concerns.  Whatever your view, at least look at some of the services out there and read up.  Learn what you can.  Then decide what you want to do with it.

I'm sorry if I seem non-committal, but I suppose I am.  Probably the mark of a consultant's world.  We always answer tough questions with "well, it depends".  That's a silly cliché, but it's really the most appropriate answer in most cases.  After 25 years working with computers I've learned to treat knee-jerk answers with caution.

Me personally, I don't have much use for Amazon S3, Microsoft's Azure, or SalesForce.com.  But that doesn't mean those may be of enormous importance and benefit to others.  That's why I say "it depends".

What's good?

Cloud services offload your infrastructure management overhead.  This includes facility space, utilities, logistics (scheduling the T-1 guy and the phone guy, etc.), hardware purchasing and provisioning, patch management, updates, support teams and call rotation schedules, heating and cooling impacts, backups and disaster recovery, and so on.  Those are some hefty reasons to consider it.  It's like saying: "Hey Microsoft, I can't really handle my own data center and server admins, so I'd like you to handle it for us"

What's bad?

There really is no outright "bad" here.  There are risks, that's a given.  Loss of Internet connectivity is probably the biggest concern for most businesses.  After that would be security, fault tolerance, disaster recovery response time, support responsiveness, flexibility, costs (real vs perceived) and so on.  But another recent risk that only emerged since the acquisition of Drop.io by Facebook is what happens when the service is acquired by a competing business or just goes out of business?  What garantees do you have?

Like I said: You have to educate yourself on not only what the general state of the art is, but what each player brings to the table, as well as what risks are incurred.  Then you need to carefully weigh those risks and compare the real costs, which can be tricky.  You will find that many of the aspects for cost comparison are the same as doing the business case for virtualizing servers and services.  Even if you have no plans to jump on the cloud services wagon, at least educate yourself and map out why you should or should not recommend it for your business.  The executive team will be most impressed that you took the initiative on your own (hey, a little job security never hurts).

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