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Why transparency matters in the cloud

by Lydia Leong  |  April 24, 2011  |  2 Comments

A number of people have asked if the advice that Gartner is giving to clients about the cloud, or about Amazon, has changed as a result of Amazon’s outage. The answer is no, it hasn’t.

In a nutshell:

1. Every cloud IaaS provider should be evaluated individually. They’re all different, even if they seem to be superficially based off the same technology. The best provider for you will be dependent upon your use case and requirements. You absolutely can run mission-critical applications in the cloud — you just need to choose the right provider, right solution, and architect your application accordingly.

2. Just like infrastructure in your own data center, cloud IaaS requires management, governance, and a business continuity / disaster recovery plan. Know your risks, and figure out what you’re going to do to mitigate them.

3. If you’re using a SaaS vendor, you need to vet their underlying infrastructure (regardless of whether it’s their own data center, colo, hosting, or cloud).

The irony of the cloud is that you’re theoretically just buying something as a service without worrying about the underlying implementation details — but most savvy cloud computing buyers actually peer at the underlying implementation in grotesquely more detail than, say, most managed hosting customers ever look at the details of how their environment implemented by the provider. The reason for this is that buyers lack adequate trust that the providers will actually offer the availability, performance, and security that they claim they will.

Without transparency, buyers cannot adequately assess their risks. Amazon provides some metrics about what certain services are engineered to (S3 durability, for instance), but there are no details for most of them, and where there are metrics, they are usually for narrow aspects of the service. Moreover, very few of their services actually carry SLAs, and those SLAs are narrow and specific (as everyone discovered recently in this last outage, since it was EBS and RDS that were down and neither have SLAs, with EC2 technically unaffected, so nobody’s going to be able to claim SLA credits).

Without objectively understanding their risks, buyers cannot determine what the most cost-effective path is. Your typical risk calculation multiplies the probability of downtime by the cost of downtime. If the cost to mitigate the risk is lower than this figure, then you’re probably well-advised to go do that thing; if not, then, at least in terms of cold hard numbers, it’s not worth doing (or you’re better off thinking about a different approach that alters the probability of downtime, the cost of downtime, or the mitigation strategy).

Note that this kind of risk calculation can go out the window if the real risk is not well understood. Complex systems — and all global-class computing infrastructures are enormously complex under the covers — have nondeterministic failure modes. This is a fancy way of saying, basically, that these systems can fail in ways that are entirely unpredictable. They are engineered to be resilient to ordinary failure, and that’s the engineering risk that a provider can theoretically tell you about. It’s the weird one-offs that nobody can predict, and are the things that are likely to result in lengthy outages of unknown, unknowable length.

It’s clear from reading Amazon customer reactions, as well as talking to clients (Amazon customers and otherwise) over the last few days, that customers came to Amazon with very different sets of expectations. Some were deep in rose-colored-glasses land, believing that Amazon was sufficiently resilient that they didn’t have to really invest in resiliency themselves (and for some of them, a risk calculation may have made it perfectly sane for them to run just as they were). Others didn’t trust the resiliency, and used Amazon for non-mission-critical workloads, or, if they viewed continuous availability as critical, ran multi-region infrastructures. But what all of these customers have in common is the simple fact that they don’t really know how much resiliency they should be investing in, because Amazon doesn’t reveal enough details about its infrastructure for them to be able to accurately judge their risk.

Transparency does not necessarily mean having to reveal every detail of underlying implementation (although plenty of buyers might like that). It may merely mean releasing enough details that people can make calculations. I don’t have to know the details of the parts in a disk drive to be able to accept a mean time between failure (MTBF) or annualized failure rate (AFR) from the manufacturer, for instance. Transparency does not necessarily require the revelation of trade secrets, although without trust, transparency probably includes the involvement of external auditors.

Gartner clients may find the following research notes helpful:

and also some older notes on critical questions to ask your SaaS provider, covering the topics of infrastructure, security, and recovery.

Category: infrastructure  

Tags: cloud  risk  

Lydia Leong
VP Distinguished Analyst
16 years at Gartner
23 years IT industry

Lydia Leong covers cloud computing and infrastructure strategies, along with a broad range of topics related to the transformation of IT organizations, data centers, and technology providers.Read Full Bio

Thoughts on Why transparency matters in the cloud

  1. Jay Heiser says:

    The bigger the cloud, the harder the rainfall.

    It may be that we need to start conceptualizing anything that is described as ‘a cloud’ as ‘a potential single point of failure.’

  2. Debbi Cole says:

    I think some organisations are reluctant to run mission-critical solutions in the cloud and the recent Amazon story doesn’t help. perhaps as an industry we need to do more to alleviate the nervousness of some potential clients. even the story about the PlayStation outage has come up in conversation when discussing the choices between dedicated servers and cloud servers, which is strange… but clients concerns, are clients concerns…

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