Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Cloud, the economy, and short-term thinking: highlights from Gartner's Data Center Conference

There was a lot to take in at the Gartner Data Center Conference this year, and unfortunately I had a very abbreviated amount of time actually on the ground in Vegas to do it. What was the most notable thing? In my opinion, the headline was how much Gartner has strengthened its feelings about cloud computing in 12 months.

And not any 12 months, mind you, but 12 months darkened by the worse economic downturn of our lives. Of course, they did talk plenty about the impact the economy has had, especially on the IT operations psyche and approach, but cloud computing won out, hands down.
From what I gathered, Gartner now sees cloud computing (especially private clouds) and the real-time infrastructures that support them as something big customers should take a look at.

This certainly isn’t an earth-shattering change. Last year at this time, Tom Bittman’s keynote was about how the future of IT looked a lot like a private cloud. This year, the keynotes and sessions throughout the week definitely gave the impression that cloud computing has evolved and improved this past year, and Gartner has moved its thinking as well. The cloud computing discussion felt more mainstream, more central to many of the presentations. It certainly played a starring role in more of them.
Private clouds received quite a bit of positive airtime, and a near-unanimous vote of confidence from Gartner analysts – something that I didn’t feel was true at last year’s event. This year, Bittman was one of a larger chorus, rather than one of the few vocal Gartner private cloud advocates.

Dave Cappuccio’s keynote on “Infrastructure & Operations: Charting a Course for the Coming Decade” emphasized Gartner’s enthusiasm around private clouds with this prediction: of the money being spent on cloud computing over the next 3-5 years, “we think private cloud services will be 70-80% of the investment.” That sounds pretty serious to me.

Cloud computing focus soars, even though budgets don’t

The audience in the room for the opening keynotes (polled as usual with handheld devices they scattered throughout the room) considered cloud computing to be the 3rd biggest data center challenge for 2010 – in a world in which they also expect flat IT operations budgets. The No. 1 challenge was “space, power, & cooling” and No. 2 was that perennial issue, “linking IT & business.” In fact, 6% of people in the room put cloud computing as their top funded item for next year (compared with 9% for virtualization). That’s impressive.
Gartner believes the bad economy is forcing short-term thinking on infrastructure & operations projects
But don't think that just because cloud computing progressed that there's nothing dramatically different from last year. There is: the impact of the economy on the behavior of IT operations.
One of the most depressing quotes of the conference was not from Jeffrey Garten of the Yale School of Management (though I thought it might be). He actually had a pretty interesting talk -- in plain English -- about what has gone well and what has gone badly in the attempts to stave off a full global financial meltdown that went into high gear at the end of 2008.
Instead, it was how Donna Scott and Ronni Colville characterized IT’s response.
Is the best offense is a good defense? Really?

Because of the bad economy, according to Scott and Colville, any talk about data center or infrastructure “transformation” is right out the window. Instead, they said, the kinder, gentler term “restructuring” is in vogue. I guess that descriptor implies short-term ROI, which is at least pragmatic, since projects with long-term pay-outs are off the table completely. Organizations, said Scott, are instead switching to fast (OK, rushed) IT restructuring moves now.

So, hooray for the focus on ROI, but the shorter time horizon isn’t necessarily good news. It means less thoughtful analysis and planning, and a focus only on what can be done immediately. The unfortunate result? “A lot of optimization decisions are made in silos,” Scott said, when in fact sharing those efforts (things like moving to shared IT services), could have a much broader impact. Gee, thanks, bad economy.

In fact, many of the comments I heard from analysts gave the distinct impression that IT is (and should be) on the defensive. “Promises of IT transformation,” said Milind Govekar during his talk on IT metrics, “are taking a back seat to immediate goals of cost optimization, increasing quality or reducing risk.” Govekar noted that, in fact, “cloud hype” is a part of the problem; it “threatens IT budgets and control.”

Comments like these from Govekar and others felt a bit like the analysts were hearing (and in some cases recommending) that IT should circle the wagons, implying that cloud computing was threatening the status quo in IT. Well, if all of its promises come true, it certainly could.
But not if IT operations makes the first move. How? I liked the bit of advice I saw come from Carl Claunch’s keynote: pilot everything. Private clouds, public clouds, hybrid clouds. If you want to know how to do it, the only way to learn is to get started.

For the record, I seem to recall recounting some very similar advice from last year’s conference. Nevertheless, from what I saw and heard this year, Gartner’s research and the evidence from attendees show increased interest and adoption in cloud computing and real-time infrastructures, despite hiccups, bumps, and bruises from the Great Recession.

That in and of itself is impressive.

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