Wednesday 17 March 2010

Cloud Congress Done Quick

[well, my bit at least]

Yesterday I spoke at this year’s Cloud Computing Conference covering what cloud computing really is all about (once you peel away the hype) and how to break the back of the adoption problem – what do you put out there and how do you get started? It was the first time I’d ever done a talk that had absolutely no diagrams or pictures whatsoever in the presentation and, considering the plainness of the slide deck, it didn’t go too badly at all.

Excluding the mundane introduction, here’s the reader’s digest version of my key points:

What's in a cloud?

As a relativity new and trendy technology cloud computing is open to a lot of debate and even the 'correct' interpretation changes as the technology matures. We've had web applications for a long time now, so I'm not comfortable with SaaS being thrown into the cloud bucket. I like to define it in the context of how it changes how you deliver software (by abstracting away the complexities, layout, and connectivity of infrastructure from you developers) and how it impacts the way delivery costs are calculated (by exchanging metered billing on a usage basis for CAPEX-heavy up front acquisition).

My test (does your definition of cloud computing rely on the observations of your end users?) is simply to ask yourself "am I saying I am a cloud company just because my users access my product over the web?" If so, then perhaps you need to consider that maybe you might not be. Nothing wrong with that, but nothing new either.

What your FD sees

My next section expanded on the CAPEX vs OPEX shift that cloud platforms enable. If you have got your product design right then - on the web anyway - more usage should equate to more revenue and, with a cloud platform, more usage equates to more cost. See how that works? The cost base grows in line with revenues, therefore smoothing out that lumpy accounting and tricky budgeting activity that is characteristic of large hardware drops throughout a site's lifetime. You've also able to bring new things online relatively quickly (eliminating the ordering/delivery lead time/racking and stacking stages) and you can afford to try out slightly more speculative business cases - if I'm on the fence about a particular feature then I'm much more likely to give it a try if I know I can pack it up quickly and cheaply later if it's turns out for the worst.

Most cloud platforms have pretty good metering systems in place and that allows you a much more granular view of what part of your system is directly responsible for what parts of your cost base. From a business case perspective my advice here is to include all costs and not forget about time as a factor. Sounds a little obvious but when, for example, looking at Amazon's S3 as a storage platform for an analytical data set your total cost is going to include the transferring in and out of data as well as the cost per GB of storing it. Time matters too - I've seen the odd business case for a cloud platform fail to stack up because over a 3 year period more total cash is paid out than total cash spend once the large CAPEX bill is amortized over the same period.

Cloud capabilities

I also touched on some of the less obvious uses for cloud computing because so much emphasis is given to migrating existing systems into the cloud and I don't think enough time is given to considering what additional things that aren't being done now could be brought on because of the inherent properties of cloud platforms. These include private content delivery networks (because the larger cloud players tend to have a good reach), enabling offshore or outsourced development without opening your perimeters to external organizations who may have weaker security policies, neutral territory for integrations or joint ventures, and large scale load testing (because where else will you get hundreds of high spec load generators external to your network and connected over realistically-latent lines).

Development and testing environments are a good way to dip a toe in because, if you're doing it right, you will already have nicely sanitized data (which gets you clear of most of the oft-cited security concerns) and you won't be expecting production-sized load. It's also the best way to get a good feel for the cloud suitability of your production system without making any user impacting changes.

Architecting for the cloud

Many people - mostly those selling cloud integration tools or who charge by the hour - will tell you about how they can help you move your systems into the cloud. Don't kid yourself on. If you're using a half-way decent definition of a cloud platform then there is a lot more to it than is commonly appreciated. There are a number of good design patterns that I believe organizations should start adopting today and not just because they prepare systems for cloud runtime in the future, but also because they're pretty good ideas on their own merits.

It all starts with my favorite - decoupling and creating clear, distinct boundaries between functionality in a system and abstracting the specifics of the implementation which delivers said functionality behind a well defined interface. When you present specific uses of data to a network in this way then, subject to a bunch of common sense rules, you are able to host that individual part of your overall system another way - on different servers, in another data center, or hey, in the cloud! As long as it's reachable by it's consumers - which brings us nicely onto messaging and using state sparingly - you buy yourself the flexibility to move things quite dynamically. A service registry is also highly desirable if you a) have composites made up of many services and b) want to be able to move them and scale up/down dynamically.

All good practices for scalability and availability regardless of your stance on the cloud.

The crystal ball

You're not allowed to speak at an event and not give some predictions. I think there is an old charter or something somewhere. So mine were; barriers are coming down and this will continue with technologies such as private link and private clouds, as with all trendy concepts the waters will be muddy for a while as the word 'cloud' is appended to everything we've already got in order to sell it to us again, and within 5 years I expect to see hybrids (cloud-type platforms in use to some degree) in almost every organization.

Overall a good conference - some top panelists and speakers, and I met some great folks there. Thanks to all the guys and gals at SixDegrees for putting together a worthwhile and fun event.

You can find the slides here.

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