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Does IT see the writing on the cloud wall?

April 15, 2009 5 comments

For the last six months or so I have been researching cloud computing. More recently, our team has started writing our next Dummies Book on Cloud Computing. Typically when we start a book we talk to everyone in the ecosystem — vendors big and small and lots of customers.  For example, when we started working on SOA for Dummies almost three years ago we found a lot of customers who could talk about their early experience. Not all of these companies had done things right. They had made lots of mistakes and started over. Many of them didn’t necessarily want their mistakes put into a book but they were willing to talk and share.  As I have mentioned in earlier writings, when we wrote the second edition of SOA for Dummies we had a huge number of customers that we could talk to. A lot of them have made tremendous progress in transforming not just their IT organization but the business as well.

We had a similar experience with Service Management for Dummies which comes out in June. Customers were eager to explain what they had learned about managing their increasingly complex computing and business infrastructures.  But something interesting in happening with the Cloud book. The experience feels very different and I think this is significant.

Our team has been talking to a lot of the vendors — big and small about their products and strategies around the cloud. Some of these vendors focused on some really important problems. Others are simply tacking the word cloud in front of their offerings hoping to get swept up in the excitment. But there is something missing. I think there are two things: there is a lack of clarity about what a cloud really is and what the component parts are. Is it simply Software as a Service? Is it an outsourced infrastructure? Is it storage capacity to supplement existing data centers? Is it a management platform that supports Software as a service? Does cloud require a massive ecosystem of partners? Is it a data center with APIs? Now, I am not going to answer these questions now (I’ll leave some of these to future writings).

What I wanted to talk about was what I see happening with customers.  I see customers being both confused and very wary. In fact, the other day I tried to set up a call with a senior executive from a large financial services company that I have spoken to about other emerging areas. This company always likes to be on the forefront of important technology trends. To my surprise, the executive was not willing to talk about clouds at all.  Other customers are putting their toes in the cloud (pun intended) by using some extra compute cycles from Amazon or by using Software as a Service offerings like SalesForce.com. Some customers are looking to implement a cloud-like capability within their own data center. Could it be there they are afraid that if they don’t offer something like Amazon’s EC2 cloud that they will be put out of business? Just as likely they are worried about the security of their intellectual property and their data.

I predict that the data center is about to go through a radical transformation that will forever change the landscape of corporate computing. Companies have recognized for a long time that data centers are very inefficient. They have tried clustering servers and virtualizing their servers with some level of success.  But the reality is that in time there will be a systematic approach to scalable computing based on the cloud.  It will not be a simple outsourced data center because of the transition to a new generation of software that is component based and service oriented. There is a new generation of service management technologies that makes the management of highly distributed environments much more seamless. The combination of service oriententation, service managment, and cloud will be the future of computing.

The bottom line is that while the vendor community sees dollar signs in this emerging cloud based world, the customers are afraid. The data center management team does not understand what this will mean for their future. If everything is tucked away in a cloud what is my job? Will we still have a data center? I suspect that it will not be that simple. At some point down the line we will actually move to utility computing where computing assets will all be based on a consistent set of standards so that customers will be able to mix and match the services they need in real time. We clearly are not there yet. Today there will be many data center activities that either cannot or will not be put into a cloud. Internal politics will keep this trend towards clouds moving slowly.