“Cloud” has become a FUD word

A LinkedIn post flagged me to a Forbes report about a spat between Mark Benioff (that’s salesforce.com to you and me) and Larry Ellison (Oracle). About the definition, or the understanding, of Cloud.

Well, the first interesting thing about the report is that it’s not in some tech geek publication. It’s in Forbes, which rich people read. If ever there was a candidate for airline management’s key publication, it could be this one. It does rather confirm, doesn’t it, that Cloud (we used to say Cloud Computing) is mainstream business news.

And the second thing is that it confirms, as we already knew, that Cloud has become one of those Humpty Dumpty words. You know: When I use a word (said Humpty Dumpty to Lewis Carroll’s Alice) it means exactly what I tell it to mean, neither more nor less. It’s happened in every IT generation. Working backwards, we certainly include Grid, we include “e” (as a prefix, such as “eServerFarms”), and we probably include client-server. And more, I’m sure.

As an adviser, facilitator and consultant I need to understand what people are thinking when they say “Cloud”, and it can be a lot of things these days. It’s my perception (and I’m by no means alone) that a lot of what’s marketed as Cloud today is one of:
• old-fashioned hardware-based outsourcing to a remote data centre
• web services
• some newer form of outsourcing
always with long term contracts, fixed prices, security, and and and …

We can do better. But first, there are a couple of things Cloud doesn’t need to be.

It doesn’t have to be “cheap”. This is a benefit in many cases, but not a fundamental. And in any case it’s relative: a service used for a short period may be expensive per unit, but still cheaper overall than provisioning your own “stuff” which you have to lay in for the long term. A comparison: taxi fares aren’t “cheap”, but if you don’t need permanent access to your own car then occasional taxis have the edge over the long term capital and recurrent costs of running one. But the key point is: no payment in advance, no commitment to spend levels, no true-up.

And it needn’t be “public”. I’m perfectly happy to include what are called “private cloud” services in the definition, so long as they are still true Cloud by the criteria below. But the key point here is: Cloud is not just a new word for a conventionally provisioned in-house data centre.

Many, many service vendors are rebranding their outsourced or managed services as “Cloud” to cash in on the hype. There’s a massive overlap between what we consider “virtualised” and what we consider “Cloud”. And service buyers are adding to this by insisting that cloud services must be as secure, stable and long-term an investment as any other outsourcing deal. Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt ride again.

Some (many) years ago, I was part of the team operating a then-new ICL 2980 for London University. The “V” in “VME/B” stood for “Virtual” and we had to learn (and explain to the users) the differences of a virtualised system and the advantages it could offer in the way they approached its use. Yes, this was the totally modern 1980s. Other operating systems were “going virtual” too, and one of the trade papers (I think it was Computer Weekly) ran a definition I’ve always remembered:
If it’s there, and you can see it: it’s REAL
If it’s there, and you CAN’T see it: it’s TRANSPARENT
If it’s NOT there, and you CAN see it: it’s VIRTUAL
If it’s NOT there, and you CAN’T see it: it’s GONE.
I think we add one more:
If it’s NOT there until you WANT it: it’s CLOUD.

And here are my criteria for a service to be called Cloud:

• accessed over the network using Internet protocols
• available immediately on demand
• de-provisioned immediately after use
• easy sign-up
• no long term commitment to the service provider …
• … nor by the provider to the customer
• payment strictly by usage metering
• payment after the fact, not in advance
• as near infinitely flexible capacity as can be

Links:
• Larry Ellison and Marc Benioff Just Can’t Agree: What Is the Cloud? Forbes, 6 Sep 2011
• ICL VME, Wikipedia

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