The elephant in the room is – everyone sees a different part of the elephant.
Cloud computing is becoming widely adopted, and yet, there are very different schools of thought on exactly what “cloud” is all about. That’s partly due to the term “cloud computing” being used for a broad collection of services, delivered at many different layers (infrastructure, application platform, software, and business process), and implemented in a variety of different ways (public, private, hybrid, on-premises, and off-premises). And yet, many organizations see only one value proposition of “cloud.” “Cloud computing” is, essentially, a horrible, damaging, dangerous term that will cause tremendous pain and suffering, transmogrify and destroy the careers of IT professionals and IT executives, and it should be banished from the world of IT. But until we come up with better terms, we should at least understand what we can and cannot get from the varied world of “cloud computing.”
Three perceptions of “cloud computing” dominate today, and often drive enterprise IT strategies. Usually, the IT organization is focused on only one of these, to their peril:
It’s a way to save money. The belief here is that cloud computing’s economies of scale will always win, that IT is a commodity. We see this all the time in “cloud first” (or worse, “cloud only”) strategies. The danger here is that cloud computing is not always cheaper. Services that can be effectively outsourced to “the cloud” to save money are often highly-standardized commodity services that have varied demand for infrastructure over time. The cost of retrofitting existing applications can sometimes be prohibitive. Standardization is required for cloud, and standardization can save money – but standardization has eluded enterprise IT for years in certain areas. Cloud computing doesn’t, by itself, make standardization easier to adopt. Cloud providers also have little motivation to make interoperability with other cloud providers easy (although integration and sharing across services might be necessary), and certainly no motivation to help manage usage efficiently. While economies of scale reduces costs, cloud providers also need to make a profit margin, and in a highly competitive market, some of them will not survive – which is problematic, because providers also aren’t motivated to make migration away easy. Bottom line: cloud computing can save money, but only for the right services.
It’s a way to renovate enterprise IT. The belief here is that cloud computing is an ideal form of computing, and that enterprise IT should change to adopt the learnings of the “cloud.” This is often expressed by enterprise IT organizations attempting to turn their entire infrastructure into a “private cloud.” However, cloud computing is, by definition, turning IT services into fast food. Not everything fits this style of IT service design and delivery. Not everything requires speed of deployment, or rapid scaling up or down. Not every IT service benefits from runtime automation. Some services are unique, and run the same way, day in and day out, for years (and will struggle if the underlying service keeps changing). Some services require significant and unique enterprise differentiation and customization. For decades, the goal of enterprise IT has been to build efficient, synergistic horizontal management tools and consistent and complete operational processes that covered a broad portfolio of IT services. Cloud computing turns this cross-service construct into many stand-alone services that are optimized within their siloes, but lack cross-service efficiencies. And, if a service does fit the cloud model, it might make more sense to deploy in a public cloud rather than a private cloud model. Bottom line: enterprise IT can learn from cloud computing, and private cloud, when applied to the right services (that can’t be deployed to a public cloud provider), can drive the organization to more efficient and effective standards.
It’s a way to innovate and experiment. The belief here is that cloud computing is where start-ups are born. While this is certainly true, the low barrier to entry of cloud computing enables large enterprises to behave like start-ups for new services. Cloud computing makes it extremely easy to get started, and to pilot new services. The challenge for enterprises is to enable innovation and experimentation, but to have a feasible path from pilots to production, and operational industrialization. Cloud computing makes it possible for IT users to leverage services without engaging the central IT organization. While this might be fine for the right services, the fact is that central IT has often protected the enterprise in terms of compliance, security, performance management, availability management, risk management, disaster recovery, etc. Unless the user of cloud computing services has a rich understanding of their requirements, and the requirements that the business has for services and data (and they rarely do), there is a benefit to having some form of oversight and future-planning for IT use. Bottom line: cloud computing enables new forms of computing, and can enable experimentation and short-running services like never before – but there is a balance between innovation anarchy, and long-term operational effectiveness and efficiency that needs to be managed, just right.
There’s a big difference between “cloud” for bottom-line improvement, and “cloud” for top-line improvement, and they can be diametrically opposed strategies. Which goes to the premise of this post. Cloud does not have a single value proposition for all enterprises and all services. A cloud computing strategy should include all of the above: are there opportunities to save money, and shift from capital expense to operational expenses? Are there internal IT services that would benefit from the lessons of cloud computing, and are there services that deserve their own, streamlined architectures and operational process models? And perhaps most importantly, are there services that were not feasible prior to cloud computing, that enable new services and new uses of IT that can truly help the enterprise innovate and grow?
In the end, most organizations should see cloud computing as a broad array of new possibilities that the enterprise and IT should leverage. And since it isn’t one, simple thing, this will drive enterprise IT to a new core competency, away from solely being a provider of services, and toward being both a provider and a broker of services – what we call Hybrid IT. But I’ll leave that for another post.
For now, don’t get stepped on by the elephant.