Monday, 17 November 2008

Cloud Computing Isn't...

Thought for the day - when does a new idea gain enough structure to graduate from meme to tangible concept? Is there some quorum of 'experts' that need to agree on its shape? Perhaps we need a minimum number of books written on the topic, or a certain number of vendors packaging the idea up for sale? Or maybe it is as simple as all of us trying it our own way for long enough for observable patterns to emerge?

We might have already crossed this bridge with cloud computing thanks to the accelerated uptake of robust platforms such as EC2 and App Engine (and the adherence to theme of newer offerings like Azure), but there is still a lot of residual confusion that we might start to mop up if we were so inclined.

The first thing we might stop doing is retrospectively claiming any sort of non-local activity as cloud computing. What's that? You've been using Gmail or Hotmail for years? No. sorry. You are not an ahead-of-the-curve early adopter, you are just a guy who has been using a free web based email system for a while.

Before the inevitable torrent of angry emails rains down upon my inbox, let's pause to think about what we're trying to achieve here. Does classifying the likes of Hotmail and - well, insert your favorite SaaS here - as cloud computing help or hinder the adoption and development of cloud technology? I think we probably establish these analogies because we believe that the familiarity we create by associating a trusted old favorite with a radical new concept may add comfort to perceived risks. But what about the downside of such a broad classification?

These systems are typically associated with a very narrow band of functionality (for example, sending and receiving email or storing and displaying photos) and are freely available (supported by advertising or other 2nd order revenue). They tend to lack the flexibility, identity, and SLA that an enterprise demands. This analogy may well be restricting adoption in the popular mind. Besides, where do you draw the line? Reading this blog? Clicking 'submit' on a web form? Accessing a resource in another office on your corporate WAN? I'm not knocking anyone's SaaS, in fact the noble pursuits that are our traditional online hosted email and storage systems have been significant contributing forces in the development of the platforms that made the whole cloud computing idea possible.

So, if a lot of our common everyday garden variety SaaS != a good way to talk about cloud computing, then what is?

Let's consider cloud computing from the perspective of the paradigm shift we're trying to create. How about cloud computing as taking resources (compute power and data) typically executed and stored in the corporate-owned datacenter, and deploying them into a shared (but not necessarily public) platform which abstracts access to, and responsibility for, the lower layers of computing.

That may well be the winner of Most Cumbersome Sentence 2008, but I feel like it captures the essence to a certain degree. Let's test our monster sentence against some of the other attributes of cloud computing - again from the perspective of what you're actually doing in a commercial and operational sense when you build a system on a cloud platform:

• Outsourcing concern over cooling, power, bandwidth, and all the other computer room primitives.
• Outsourcing the basic maintenance of the underlying operating systems and hardware.
• Converting a fixed capital outlay into a variable operational expense.
• Moving to a designed ignorance of the infrastructure (from a software environment perspective).
• Leveraging someone else's existing investment in capacity, reach, availability, bandwidth, and CPU power.
• Running a system in which cost of ownership can grow and shrink inline with it's popularity.

I think talking about the cloud in this way not only tells us what it is, but also a little about what we can do with it and why we'd want to. If you read this far and still disagree, then enable your caps lock and fire away!

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