Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Why are end users skeptical about cloud computing? Maybe because vendors control the info flow

Sifting through the results of the Cassatt 2nd Annual Data Center Survey, I found something that seemed worth special comment, especially in light of all the cloud computing FUD stirred up by the McKinsey report released at the Uptime Institute event in New York last week.

The McKinsey report said that cloud computing, in so many words, isn't worth the money. I can understand delivering a contrarian message as a counterbalance to the extreme, positive cloud hype currently underway. Or as John Foley of InformationWeek called it, a "much-needed reality check." Fine. But, I (and a good number of other folks -- see the link list at the end of this post) think it was off base in a lot of ways.

But that wasn't the interesting part to me. Instead, I thought it was interesting how easy it was for a single report to hit the New York Times (and a few other places, obviously) and then ignite a "negativity storm" about the perils of cloud computing. Only a few days before, the industry was in a full-fledged love fest with the concept of clouds. (And, probably will be again: the vSphere 4 announcements from VMware this week are working hard to build the "love" for cloud computing -- especially private clouds -- back up.)

But back to my question: why is it so easy to launch a FUDfest around cloud computing?

Here's one possible answer: it's because the end users are not comfortable with the information they are getting about cloud computing (public/private, internal/external, hybrid -- all of it). Why? Because the biggest source of information about this new approach to data center operations and IT in general is (surprise, surprise) the big vendors who are trying to sell them this stuff.

What makes me say this? We asked end users about it. One of the questions we included in the Cassatt 2009 Data Center Survey was: "From what sources do you get data or guidance regarding cloud computing?" Respondents were allowed to select all answers that applied. The answers, in order of popularity were:

· System vendors (e.g. Dell, HP, IBM, Sun): 46% [who would have thought at the time that we should have included Oracle in this list?!]
· Analysts (e.g. Forrester, Gartner, IDC, 451 Group): 43%
· Industry events (summits, conferences, etc.): 42%
· Industry publications/websites/blogs: 39% (e.g. TechTarget, Computerworld, etc.)
· Software/IT management vendors (e.g. BMC, CA, Cassatt, VMware, others): 33%
· Colleagues or peers: 32%
· None of the above: 21%
· Independent bloggers: 11%
· Other industry organizations: 10%
· Other: 2%

So topping the list -- above industry analysts or even their peers -- were vendors. Data center folks who answered our survey said vendors (and system vendors specifically) provided them with their key cloud computing information.

(By the way, this survey question was inspired by one we asked in last year's survey. In 2008, we asked where people got data or guidance on data center energy efficiency. The findings last year: 49% said system vendors, 43% said power & cooling vendors. Same story, different topic. Mark Fontecchio at TechTarget did a good post-Earth Day write-up on last year's findings you can read for comparison.)

Back to 2009 and cloud computing, though. I am heartened that IT ops folks do seem to spend due diligence time with industry websites and resources, and even manage to attend some of the bevy of cloud computing events making the rounds. And obviously, our results come from asking questions of the Cassatt database, a self-selecting lot, and should be viewed in that light.

But, I think there's something here. You could say that the news media love opposing views, and the McKinsey report was tuned to be just that. However, I'd argue that the skepticism by end users (and those writing on their behalf) was already in place. IT has been burned before by promises of the "next big thing." Especially when there is even a slight inkling that this next big thing is being pushed down their throats by anyone whose incentives don't line up with theirs. (OK, that's pretty much anyone selling something, so that's a little extreme, I admit.) We probably shouldn't underestimate, however, the impact of knowing that some very large vendors may not be here tomorrow (e.g. Sun being gobbled by Oracle), thanks to both the maturity of the high-tech industry and the weak economy.

The result? If those vendors are how you get your "reliable" information about a completely new way to run your data center, you'd probably be wise to be a bit skittish. And branch out a bit.

So, what should IT do to "branch out" and gain a little confidence about cloud computing? Even though I'm on the vendor side of the table, there are a couple things I'd suggest for end users that I think would be beneficial for them (and, frankly, for vendors, too):

· Make sure when pulling together supposedly reliable source information that it actually is relevant to your situation -- and actually valid. Some of the McKinsey report talks about SMBs being the only place clouds can be viable. Huh? (Again, check out some of the links who help do the math on that below.)
· Before making blanket statements about what's possible or not, try things out. You may find the cloud approach your peer companies took is exactly wrong for you. Or a no-brainer that you should have already piloted. You won't know until you’ve tried it, at least in a small, controlled way.
· If you have tried things out, even if only as a test or pilot, share that with the industry. We're all learning from each other, given how fast things move.
· Do continue to get information from vendors, but ask really tough questions. We're happy when people do that to us at Cassatt, and in fact treat that as a great way to qualify someone as a real potential customer. If you're not asking the hard questions, you're not serious about cloud computing. (The corollary: if we -- or whomever you are asking -- can't answer 'em, ask someone else who can.)
· Encourage the industry journalists/analysts to go beyond what people say in their press releases and report on what's really going on out there, good and bad. Many have this approach built into their DNA and are trying to do exactly this, but even the best ones need end user help to succeed. Be a source for them. What goes round, comes round, after all.

If you're interested in what people have been saying about the McKinsey report, here's a sampler.

Some basics to kick it off:
NY Times
Data Center Knowledge

General commentary, ranging from mildly supportive with caveats to denouncing the whole thing (and lots inbetween):
InformationWeek (John Foley)
Carpathia Hosting
Rough Type
ZDNet (Andrew Nusca)
Many Niches
InformationWeek (Michael Hickins)
Elastic Vapor
Tech Crunch
IT World
James Hamilton, AWS
Booz Allen Hamilton
CloudPundit (Lydia Leong of Gartner)
Mosso (Lew Moorman)
CIO Magazine (Bernard Golden)
Cloud Avenue (Krishnan Subramanian)

Whew. And most of this was before the Oracle-Sun deal announcement and the VMware vSphere news hit. (Though I am continuing to add to this as I find new commentary.) You would probably be able to make a pretty strong argument that information overload also plays a big role in end user cloud computing skepticism. If you're spending all your time keeping track of how the industry is morphing day-to-day, you're going to have trouble keeping your data center going, too.

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