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Are Clouds floating back to Earth?

For those of us that have been through the waves of previous technology and paradigm shifts, it’s always interesting to watch a new cycle evolve. It usually starts with a great bit of fanfare, vision, bold predictions and concerns of “that’s crazy…it’ll never work…why would anyone care about that…??” etc, etc. And then after a little while (usually 12 months), the hype slows down and there are lulls while people get down to the business of creating the actual technology, associated companies and winning business models. During these lulls, doubt often creeps in and we find out who has actual vision and who is riding the coat-tails of hype. During the initial lull in any technology cycle, I like to ask the following questions to help me determine if the lull is temporary or potentially permanent.

1. Can I explain the benefit of the technology (or vision) in 1-2 sentences, or do I need to ramble through some story?
2. If I can explain it in 1-2 sentences, do semi-technical people understand it, or at least ask good questions to clarify?
3. If this technology was open-sourced, as opposed to being controlled by a single company (or a small number of companies), are there enough interesting aspects to get communities of developers to engage with it?
4. If it’s not happening already, what is going to be the “ah ha” moment when people will actually start valuing it enough to pay for it, or at least associating valid business models with it?
5. If it went away tomorrow, would anyone really miss it within 3-6 months?

Before I answer these questions, let me step back and explain why I’m writing about this in the first place. For at least the last 12 months, it’s been rather difficult to find anything related to the Data Center that doesn’t have “Cloud” attached in one way or other. Public Clouds, Private Clouds, and Hybrid Clouds. Journey to the Cloud, Cloud in a Box, A Cloud in 30 days and False Clouds. It’s enough to make some companies have cloud envy, while some people are imposing cloud embargoes. Fair enough…welcome to a hype cycle; welcome to a paradigm shift.

But over the last couple of weeks, a couple of things caught my eye. The first was the announcement by UK systems integrator Computacenter, highlighting existing confusion from customers. The second was a market reaction that was highlighted by “cloud computing” companies. Nothing significant, but enough to make me wonder what caused these reactions and apply my litmus tests to the latest technology wave.

So let’s look at those questions again…

1. Explain the benefits in 1-2 sentences -- In general, I think the industry does a reasonably good job of being consistent with the benefits; (a) Reduce costs, (b) Become more agile, (c) Increase responsiveness to the business, etc.

2. Do semi-technical people understand it? -- If anything, business decision-makers seem to embrace Cloud more than IT technical staffs. They seem to understand it as the next-evolution of computing models, just as Manufacturing, Operations, and Customer Interaction have evolved over the past 15-20 years. In many cases, business leaders are using Cloud as a lever to push IT into a model that is more responsive to business requirements. It does potentially disrupt existing IT silos, so it’s understandable that some IT hesitation exists.

3. Are there multi-vendor or open-source options? -- My colleagues Chris Hoff and James Urquhart recently blogged about some of the options that exist for building Private Clouds or using Public Cloud services. I’ve also written about the breadth of options before. The good news is the market is delivering plenty of options for customers; at different price-points, flexibility levels and through multiple delivery mechanisms. Does it potentially require a new way to evaluate options for business problems? Yes. Does it potentially require some new IT skill sets to implement the new options (vendor-led, provider-led or open-source)? Probably.

4. When does the “ah ha” moment happen for Cloud? I think a reasonable argument can be made that it happened many years ago, as evidenced by the growing Consumerization of IT. Users have seen what’s possible and they are demanding more of it within their workplace. How IT responds to these demands will be determine the level of control they maintain vs. the level of “shadow IT” expansion driving business change. The technology side of the equation exists today, now it’s just a matter of business leaders and IT organizations deciding how quickly they can adjust.

5. Would we miss it if Cloud were gone tomorrow? Whether you’re an IT organization, an IT vendor or a consumer of  services, the genie is already out of the Cloud bottle. How well those clouds have been delivered to-date is still up for debate, but there’s no debate that always-on, accessible-anywhere, easily-established and user-centric are the new paradigms that will drive the next-generation of applications, networks and global interactions. The companies that fight it will get left behind, we’ve seen it before in other elements of our businesses. Companies that embrace it will have early struggles and stumbles, but you can’t learn the rules of the new game if you’re not out on the playground, accelerating your learning curve.

So should some recently events cause people to declare Cloud dead or begin to write its obituary? Far from it. Now is the time to begin to dig deeper into how Cloud services, Cloud operational models and Cloud technologies can help your business better compete in the 21st century. Demand that your vendors articulate how they will help you get to more efficient, automated and un-silo’d models of operations. Demand that your service providers articulate how they can better partner with you to accelerate the areas where your business needs flexibility and agility. And demand that your IT staff articulate how they are going to grow and adapt to not only have the skills for this new paradigm, but also become better leaders in aligning business needs with technology capabilities.

Clouds can be scary when you’re on an airplane or when dark clouds roll into your town. Times when you can’t control their outcome. But we’re not talking about those kinds of Clouds in your IT environment. These Clouds, internal or external, are under your control. Take the lead in using them to reshape your business, and re-establish IT as a leader within your organizations.

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  1. Clouds will dissipate. They always do. Unfortunatel sometimes with disastrous side-effects called floods.

    To have some fun, I suggest inverting all the marketing speak. It helps me finding *intrinsic* value of technology or processes. Example: I regularly try to buy old eggs because all signs say “fresh” eggs. Similarly I would only go to Cisco for increased costs, being totally stuck for the next 7 years, while becoming totally unable to adapt my business to the requests from my customers. Indeed all of these are meaningless technical statements, just like the originals.

    On the other hand stating that we eliminate up to 70% of the cabling hassle thanks to our fabric and virtual NIC technology and at the same time provide servers with huge memory capacity allowing for more virtual machines on the same physical footprint should provoke a “show me” question from both the technical people and the business people faced with a information processing challenge. To continue one could note that the vast majority of open source software is multi-vendor (hardware) while at the same time more and more companies make a living out of providing support for open-source technology. There has been a substantial evolution since the 80′s when most of the software and support concepts were laid down for the first time.

    Most virtual machines are technically not needed if the application portfolio that an organization wishes to deploy would co-exist in a civic way on a single OS. Unfortunately we need to live with this constraint. On the other hand outsourcing server & OS management to specialized organizations makes a a lot of financial sense, while posing a political challenge.

    As soon as the rains starts falling, the clouds are disappearing. When the market moves massively to VDI and over-the-top SalesForce, we will swing back to the good old days of rock-n-roll and VT100 or OSPF terminals connected to a data centre. One thing is clear for (the older) IT managers: a mainframe + N*1000 terminals is MUCH easier to control then N*1000 laptops.

    Interestingly Cisco’s DC Business Advantage design supports both: it keeps cost of virtual machine sprawl to controlable levels and permits organisations to decide for a centralisation of the desktop functionality if they wish to do so.

    Technology does not go away, most people forget about it. Archeologists and nostalgic geeks often keep it alive. Technology gets replaced by technology, or moves to completely different use.
    In factories steam engines got replaced by electrical engines, and sailing vessels by diesel-powered cargos. Because 80% of all electricity worldwide is produced by steam turbines, substantial amounts of computing technology are used to optimise it. And so does green technology.
    For this example the question would sound like: does cloud computing helps us to supply the information processing necessary to have a perennial power supply? To which the power engineers will probably answer: “we don’t care what you call it, we need the information processing power at the lowest cost”. Most consumers of information processing power say the same thing.

    Cloud will get replaced by something else. May be flowers, neurons, mushrooms, earth or duolc.