by Bernard Golden

Cloud Backlash: You Can’t Call The Whole Thing Off

Sep 08, 2009
Cloud ComputingVirtualization

Some people complain that the term "cloud computing" has become useless -- but even if we banished the words, IT would still face huge disruptions. So whether you call it banana computing or cloud computing, you'd better prepare for change, says's Bernard Golden.

I am privileged to co-chair the SDForum Cloud Services SIG. This SIG, which Tibco graciously hosts in its Silicon Valley facility (directly across the street from VMware’s HQ, I might add), is fortunate with its location—it attracts a fascinating range of speakers from innovative startups to large established technology powerhouses, all presenting on their cloud computing products, services, and plans. So I was a bit taken aback at the last meeting, when, during the pre-presentation networking, one attendee told me “I’m starting an anti-cloud company.”

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Leaving aside the question regarding why are you attending a cloud computing meeting if you’re starting an anti-cloud company, I was struck by his reasoning. The cloud, he said, is at the top of the Gartner hype cycle, at the “peak of inflated expectations” and about to plunge into the “trough of disillusionment.” This, he asserted, makes it the perfect time to start an anti-cloud company. I asked him what his company is going to focus on, but he gave me a narrow-eyed sidelong glance and, in a hushed tone, told me that he couldn’t possibly share that information, as it is a secret. From what he said, it sounded like some kind of virtualization-enabled application.

Notwithstanding the viability of the new product (impossible to determine, but, if experience is anything to go by, likely to be more dependent upon execution rather than uniqueness of idea), I was struck by his supporting reasoning and the language he used to justify his plans.

Because cloud computing is about to tip into the trough of disillusionment, his assessment is that coming out with a product explicitly positioned as a non-cloud product will find a ready audience in prospects weary of the topic and burned by initial forays into the area. His confidence, borne by the supporting evidence of the Hype Cycle, rests on the certainty that customers will march through a pre-determined path of cloud computing experience. It’s almost as if technology users are trapped in a 21st century version of Pilgrim’s Progress, trudging inexorably toward a predestined goal, beset by innumerable challenges and disappointments.

Lest you think that I am singling out my conversational companion, I hear many people complain that cloud computing is over-hyped; many others grumble that the term itself is imprecise, derivative of already-existing technologies, or (as I described last week) useless. To a certain extent, the complaints are justified—at least about the imprecision and serenity of a term that seems so fluffy. In part, this derives from a natural tendency to distrust phenomena associated with neologisms; although, I must say that cloud computing does not even make the top of my “vapid computing terms.” Number one on my list is “middleware.” Now, that’s a precise term (not)! Beyond unease with the term cloud computing itself, is a suspicion (not to say hope) that the whole cloud movement will turn out to be much ado about nothing, and that we can rest easy, secure in the knowledge that we don’t really have to change anything.

And I’m sympathetic. I really am. Wouldn’t it be great if our work lives remained stable and we could just get on with things, rather than having to learn new technologies and overturn established practices? In fact, I’m willing to jettison the term; let’s banish it. Cloud computing, be gone! Never let it darken our doorway again. Except that, no matter what one calls it, the following trends still need to be confronted:

The ever-increasing growth of Information Technology: We just keep finding more (and more innovative) uses for IT. The scale of computing continues to grow by leaps and bounds, outstripping our physical ability to manage the ever-larger agglomeration of hardware. And, thanks to Moore’s Law, which every 18 months halves the cost of a given compute capacity, this problem is, perhaps, accelerating! As the cost halves, most companies buy more than twice as much, so they end up with a net growth in compute infrastructure

The need to tie IT costs to outcomes: Businesses are tired of investing gobs of capital without discernible results. There is increasing pressure on IT to directly associate business outcomes and IT input costs. This will inevitably lead to pressure to move to use-based costing rather than lumpy capital spend.

Pressure on IT operations to become more efficient: Simply put, the old, manually-based work practices of operations are unsustainable, both physically and economically, in the face of the ever-increasing growth of computing, addressed in bullet point number one. Two weeks ago I used the metaphor of Wal-Mart’s logistics practices to describe the inevitable move to just-in-time, hyper-efficient provisioning processes. Proving that no idea is sui generis, respected Burton Group analyst Chris Wolf also used the Wal-Mart analogy with roughly the same perspective; the only difference is that he states that internal IT organizations will need to be priced 10% to 20% lower than external providers, while I feel that internal groups will be allowed a pricing premium of about the same magnitude, with the premium based on issues around organizational control, closer ties, proprietary business process information, and the like. The point, overall, is that IT can’t stick with the old practices and needs to adopt new ones, no matter what they’re called.

Explosion of corporate data: More and more systems spew out more and more data. Economically storing, accessing, and analyzing these mountains of data requires infrastructure beyond most organization’s grasp, not to mention the fact that traditional solutions don’t really scale economically. A solution needs to be found to support managing these torrents of bits.

I could go on and list others. There is no doubt that the practice of IT is changing dramatically, and resisting the change because the term used to describe it is frivolous is a losing game. Sometimes I feel like Alfred Kahn, an economist in the Carter Administration, who inadvertently used the term “recession,” which caused political repercussions. Chastised, he vowed to use the term “banana” thereafter to refer to unpleasant economic times (if you hate the current state of airline travel, Kahn is the man to hate; he kicked off the airline deregulation initiative).

So, instead of calling it cloud computing, perhaps “banana computing” would do as well. One think Kahn learned, though, is that no one was fooled by the euphemism and everyone knew perfectly well what he was referring to. Likewise, using the term “banana computing” is unlikely to hoodwink anyone—they’ll still know it’s really cloud computing, and it’s about addressing the trends listed above.

Bernard Golden is CEO of consulting firm HyperStratus, which specializes in virtualization, cloud computing and related issues. He is also the author of “Virtualization for Dummies,” the best-selling book on virtualization to date.

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