Consider these statements:
- Baseball is a game where the pitcher throws to the catcher.
- An iPhone is a device that lets you call anywhere in the world.
- The Grand Canyon is a tourist attraction in Arizona
You’ll have noticed that these statements aren’t wrong, per se. But they still take you aback, don’t they? They miss the point, miss the magic, neglect the important differentiators. By explaining too little, defining the subject too narrowly, they explain nothing that’s really useful.
- Cloud computing is where you have a lot of intelligence in the network and it’s available from wherever you need to get to it
A distressing portion of mainstream media covering cloud computing has decided that the best way to explain the phenomenon is first to make hand-waving general statements such as the above example from BusinessWeek, and then cite a few consumer-understandable examples such as in this piece from NPR: “Do you have a Yahoo e-mail account? Maybe a Gmail account? Do you put up pictures on Flickr? Perhaps you’ve started keeping your schedule online. If so, then you are using cloud computing — that’s what tech companies call it when people work and store information on the Internet.”
Flickr, Gmail, and Facebook are great services, but declaring that they represent the burgeoning trend of cloud computing is as incomplete and unsatisfying as explaining the Grand Canyon as just a tourist attraction in Arizona.
The problem here, and the reason that so many of these mainstream articles get it so wrong, is they’re trying to explain cloud computing as a consumer-oriented phenomenon, and it’s basically not. Not the exciting or “new” part, anyway. Even technology vendors drift into this as they try to tout their cloud offerings: witness a recent TV commercial from IBM entitled “My Cloud: Virtual Servers on the Horizon”, a commercial which would work just as well if it were titled “the incredible power of the Internet”, or even, “aren’t computers cool?” Similarly, that cloud computing “definition” from BusinessWeek is, quite frankly, nonsensical in its broadness: it not only completely misses the point of what makes cloud computing relevant and compelling as a game-changer, it even fails to distinguish it from the last 15+ years of the Internet in general.
Mainstream media drifts into this oversimplification in part because they’re leery of delving into technical arcania (virtualization, scalable architectures, APIs) that many of their readers can’t relate to. Yet, there’s actually no need, when you try to explain its real impact, to make cloud computing sound geeky and complicated; it’s not, at least at core. I’m going to trot out some analogies here; like most analogies, they’ll necessarily gloss over some important complexities, and will only go so far before they break down. Nonetheless, they should give you a better idea of what’s different about this trend, in a way that talking about storing your photos on Flickr won’t.
Cloud computing is simply a way for a company to use someone else’s computing resources (servers, software, etc.), on demand, to fill its need, rather than buy and manage and maintain those resources itself. Instead of bulking up its own data center, the company uses as little or as much of someone else’s as its immediate needs dictate, on a pay-as-you-go basis.
Does that still sound complicated? Okay, think ZIPcar. Rather than own your own car, (purchase it, license it, insure it, maintain it, fuel it, pay to park it, etc.), you can choose to use a ZIPcar that’s parked near where you live. You reserve it, walk up to it, and drive it away as if it were your own. You pay an hourly or daily fee, to be sure, but perhaps you don’t need “fulltime, anytime” access to a car, and it works out to be both easier and cheaper to get one when you need it, and not worry about all the ancillary details. Are there downsides? Sure, and these will vary depending on your situation. This solution may be great and cost-effective for you, but not work at all well for your neighbor, who has different needs.
In the not-too-distant past, ZIPcar wasn’t available to you as an option. Neither was cloud computing. If you started a company that provided an online product or needed internal systems, you bought servers. And electricity and cooling. And storage. And software. And you hired people to set that all up for you, and keep it all operating smoothly. And you tried to anticipate your demand, and to make sure you had just the right amount of capacity (not too much, not too little) for your customers or users. Almost always, that meant you bought ahead of the curve, and you sat on (and paid for) your excess capacity while the demand increased.
Enter the cloud. Now, depending on your company’s situation and needs, you don’t need to sink in resources and funds (and risk) up front. Reserve your server, and (metaphorically) walk up to it and drive it away as if it’s yours. Let it go when you’re done, and poof, it’s effectively gone; no more overhead. Think about the sheer power that possibility represents. Think of the reduction in logistics and interdependencies. Think about how much less risk the company has incurred, if your plans happen to change. The potential independence, enablement, and empowerment that the cloud brings, particularly for new and small businesses, is as close as anything I’ve witnessed to the way the industry was shaken and shaped by the advent of the PC, starting in the early 80s. And that “disruptive technology” nature of the cloud, astonishingly, is what’s being missed by the kinds of articles in BusinessWeek and NPR that I’ve cited, not to mention by the myriad old-timers who like to sneer loftily that nothing here is new.
Lest I be accused of being starry-eyed about the cloud (to mix some firmamental metaphors), let me make sure I acknowledge here how early this technology is, how key aspects are still being worked out, and that it’s not a panacea. And, like ZIPcar, it’s not for any and every situation. But none of those caveats detracts from the cloud’s potential and the ground-shaking nature of the phenomenon.
It’s all about cost, flexibility, time to market, and risk mitigation, basically, for businesses. Just a couple of quick examples: eHarmony recently did a project where they took a monthly expense of $5K down to $1.5K with cloud computing. And here’s another study of a startup using cloud approaches and reaping a lot of benefits. As a CTO/CIO, I can personally attest to how much time and heartache goes into planning capital investments and attempting to right-size infrastructure; anything that can simplify and streamline that thorniness is welcome indeed.
Remember, everyone wants IT to be less costly and more flexible, to focus on business needs more than on technical minutiae, and to be able to turn on a dime to meet new needs. Cloud computing will be key to fulfilling those desires. In fact, I believe it will be revolutionary to the industry over the coming years.
- Maria Spinola, “An Essential Guide to Possibilities and Risks of Cloud Computing — A Pragmatic, Effective and Hype-Free Approach For Strategic Enterprise Decision Making“
- Nicholas Carr, The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google
- Lori MacVittie, “Cloud Computing: The Last Definition You’ll Ever Need“
- Cath Everett, “Five cloud computing myths exploded“
- Jeffrey Burt, “Gartner Predicts Rise of ‘Cloud Service Brokerages’”, July 9, 2009.
- Brenda Michelson, “Cloud Computing Picks for Business Analysts“