Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Making cloud computing work: customers at 451 Group summit say costs, trust, and people issues are key

A few weeks back, the 451 Group held a short-but-sweet Infrastructure Computing for the Enterprise (ICE) Summit to discuss "cloud computing in context." Their analysts, some vendors, and some actual customers each gave their own perspective on how the move to cloud computing is going -- and even what's keeping it from going.

The customers especially (as you might expect) came up with some interesting commentary. I'm always eager to dig into customer feedback on cloud computing successes and roadblocks, and thought some of the tidbits we heard at the event were worth recounting here.

(A side note: if you're interested in more cloud-related customer comments, you can look at some previous Data Center Dialog posts, including this one recounting questions overheard about internal clouds from a few months back.)

Clouds under the radar

As a way to set the stage, 451 Group analyst and ICE practice lead Rachel Chalmers compared cloud computing’s adoption to that of Linux in the late '90s, and to the beginnings of server virtualization in dev/test environments. "There was a lot of VMware [being used in IT] before CIOs even knew it was there. It only belatedly comes to the attention of the architects." Chalmers was clear that adoption is underway ("Customers are already using cloud," she said), and emphasized how under-the-radar adoption like this can really help. "They come pre-evangelized," said Chalmers. That means there are a lot fewer people to convince when it comes time to make the case to roll this out widely.

Customers: Some hesitate to call it cloud

Yuvi Kochar, CTO from the Washington Post Company, saw the work that his teams were doing as shared services, and said, "I hesitate to call this work a cloud." He acknowledged that they were enabling elasticity and cost accounting, but that some of what they were working on was still "hand-wired." What was the thing that pushed Kochar over the edge to move toward dynamic, shared IT services (even if he can't bring himself to actually it "cloud")? Cost. "We want to move everything to a variable cost model," Kochar said. Another customer, Ljubomir Buturovic, VP & chief scientist from Pathworks Diagnostic, said they told their server vendor they would be buying no more hardware, and they haven't. Again: cost was the driver -- in this case, capital costs.

Cloud: It's (still) not for the faint of heart

I thought some of the most useful insights of the customer panel were from Jim Houghton, now co-founder and CTO of Adaptivity. Houghton reflected back on his experiences a few years ago getting what could now be termed a private cloud -- then called utility computing -- off the ground at Wachovia and Bank of America. He characterized the work as something which eventually turned into a $100-million project to stabilize a "chaotic environment" in IT and "took out $500 million in op ex."

Houghton noted that he and his employers at the time "learned a lot of hard lessons along the way." For example, the mechanisms for truly automated provisioning and handling dynamic shifts in demand are "really important," but really hard, especially since the tools at that time he started (early to mid-2000s) were still quite immature. Metering what you're using is critical, he said, but "it's hard to meter when you're separate from the physical environment." Overall, said Houghton, cloud-style dynamic infrastructure is "not for the faint of heart."

Funny. I heard Donna Scott of Gartner make the same observation about creating a real-time infrastructure back in December. We've come a long way, but there's more to do, for sure.

Biggest pain: impact on the people and the organization

Houghton identified a couple best practices for making the shift to a dynamic, shared infrastructure to support your applications: for example, workloads that are entirely self-contained and in which you have access to the source code make excellent candidates for these types of deployments. However, he said, you need to truly understand the workload characteristics. That last bit is something I've heard many large IT organizations lament as a huge problem -- profiling what they currently have and how it runs.

However, he said, the more painful thing is the change in the operational model and its impact on a company's organization and the people that work in it. I've heard this many times over the past several years, from customers, analysts, and even vendors. You can't underestimate the impact that the cloud operating model will have on personnel.

"It gets to be a very touchy subject for clients," said Houghton. "It's hard to do the business cost model without talking about 'these 20 people will be out of a job.'" Or at least who can be moved to focus different things than they're focused on today.

Need to move beyond just virtualization

Houghton also made a comment that infrastructure that's "mildly virtualized may be efficient, but is not all that dynamic." I have to agree: there is a lot more needed to make a private cloud-style infrastructure fly than loading up on a bunch of virtual servers. In fact, that point was made pretty strongly when Dan Kusnetzky lined up his fellow 451 Group analysts to highlight some of the cloud computing inhibitors. William Fellows conveniently rattled off some of his (and the industry's) favorites: security, SLA support, corporate governance, interoperability, vendor viability, job security, and misaligned business models. To name a few.

These are issues we've heard before, for sure, and are at the top of the list of things to be addressed in order for cloud computing to be viable day-to-day in an IT shop. I think it's good news that we're hearing more and more about the manageability side of the issue.

Can I drive your Mercedes while you're not using it?

One of the strongest objections to an internal cloud, or really a shared infrastructure of any sort, still boils down to what's called "server hugging." Houghton gave an amusing explanation of the mentality by putting it this way: "Just because I have 4 Mercedes and I can only drive 1 at a time, doesn’t mean I'm going to let you drive the other 3." In his case, the team of coworkers and vendors pitching this new approach had to put in "years of work" to "build up the trust. What you have to say in response is, 'You'll get everything you wanted, plus a lot more.'" And, of course, you have to back it up by delivering on your promises with great cost savings, excellent service levels, and an improved ability to respond to new requirements from the business.

Are we making progress on cloud computing?

Chalmers noted that in many cases a move to cloud computing doesn't feel like progress at all. "All we're doing is moving the headaches somewhere else. But," she said, those management headaches "still need to be solved."

Fellows noted that there really isn't any definition of success so far. Early adopters of grid, utility computing, and virtualization have been the ones in his experience to be most aggressive in working toward cloud-style environments. "It’s a logical end-point for any of those [earlier] activities," said Fellows.

In fact, said Chalmers, "very often when we see an early adopter of cloud that's successful, it's because they understood HPC [high-performance computing] and putting everything under control in the data center."

So, are we making progress toward incorporating cloud computing in today's IT environment?

Houghton from Adaptivity made the point that "the economic malaise has put a lot of power back into the CTO's hands." It's a chance to use this power to instigate more sweeping changes to how IT operates than any time in recent memory. But people are being judicious with that power.

Appropriately, Chalmers probably did the best job of putting cloud computing in that context: "In this world of financial crisis, the acid test of any technology is: 'Does anyone care enough to sign a purchase order?'" Clearly, some do. (And some fraction of those are on stage at events like this talking about what they've done and learned.) And, as the industry matures the management capabilities and works out the kinks that many of these customers noted, others will start to feel that it's time to sign on the dotted line, too. And hopefully join them on stage.

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