Sunday, August 30, 2009

Bill Coleman: Cloud is still v1.0, but he has an idea or two for entrepreneurs

Silicon Valley seems to breed serial entrepreneurs. My former boss, Bill Coleman, is one of those people. He has put many years into high-tech ventures, including Sun, BEA, and now Cassatt, and has made a huge impression on the industry.

One of the questions I kept getting asked after CA picked up the Cassatt people and assets earlier this summer was "what's Bill Coleman going to do next?" So, I figured, why not ask him to do an interview for Data Center Dialog, and get him to answer that question directly. Bill, always generous with his time, agreed.

I didn't limit my questions to his current activities, though. Bill has run a billion-dollar company, been president of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, is currently on the Palm and Symantec boards, and has shown up on the cover of Forbes. So there's a wealth of big-company experience there. He has also repeatedly put his reputation on the line in start-up ventures chasing big ideas, so I wanted to get his take on the economy as a whole and his advice for other entrepreneurs right now. And, while I was at it, I couldn't help but ask him a few things about what he might have done differently with Cassatt and where the cloud computing market is in general.

Jay Fry, Data Center Dialog: I saw the recent announcement about your joining the advisory board for 3Tera. What can you say about your work with 3Tera and your thoughts on their market and approach?
Bill Coleman: As you know, I believe that cloud computing will disintermediate all current models of computing over the next decade or so. A key element of this is to be able to migrate existing three-tier applications from their current model to a cloud model. 3Tera has developed a simple solution that can easily address a significant part of these environments. It is a natural complement and starting point to what we were doing with dynamic, policy-based cloud computing at Cassatt.

DCD: What else are you working on that you can talk about now?

Bill Coleman: I continue to explore new options in cloud computing with start-ups such as 3Tera and Replicus. I think the Replicus Cloudplane technology has the potential to re-invent storage by replacing our complex and expensive model with a simple model that uses replication, bandwidth, and commodity storage to replace all the technologies we use today. I am also spending a lot of time delving into the emerging dislocation that will take place as the smart energy grid is built out. Finally, I am trying to help the Committee to Establish the National Institute of Finance gain traction in Washington, DC.

DCD: Given how rapidly the cloud computing market is changing these days (recent examples: the Cassatt acquisition by CA, DataSynapse being acquired by TIBCO, and Amazon’s Virtual Private Cloud announcement for starters), where do you think we are at the moment? How does the technology map to what customers need and want now?

Bill Coleman: Unfortunately, I think that we are still in the "1.0" version of simple, public cloud implementations. These will evolve to support more general applications with more sophisticated data models and interoperability with enterprises over the next five years. Where we are just beginning to see something real is in private clouds for the enterprise. Today, it is mostly a lot of market hype to sell low-end virtualization capabilities and "bulldoze and replace" sales. However, that will change. I do think that companies such as CA have the opportunity to catalyze that part of the market, which will ultimately commoditize the economics of enterprise IT.

DCD: So, you've been "retired" three times now: once after you left Sun, once after BEA, and now after Cassatt. Why is it so hard for you to stay retired?
Bill Coleman: Good question. The answer is that after trying to retire a couple of times before I know what makes me tick a little better than I used to. I am a self-admitted Type-A personality and an extrovert. What that means is that I get energy from stress and I lose energy when I don't have it. So, I am hooked on the adrenalin that comes with passionately pursuing a cause to "change the world" in some small way. For me that has always been in business, so I will be back in the saddle pretty soon.

DCD: I've heard you talk over the years about the "epiphanies" you've had that led to the founding of BEA and then Cassatt. Have you had any epiphanies about what to focus on next?
Bill Coleman: Well, mostly they look like epiphanies in the rear view mirror, but I have a couple of ideas that seem to be coming together. Stay tuned!

DCD: How do you judge whether a market is worth the time, effort, and resources necessary to build a company around and to go after?
Bill Coleman: For me, it is about identifying a market dislocation that is about to begin that can be catalyzed with a technical solution. It has to be something that will present the opportunity for a new entrant (large or small) to undermine the incumbents with a value proposition that brings customers enough value to justify their switching costs. Finally, it has to be something that I can build passion about.

DCD: What do you think Cassatt got right – and what do you think it got wrong?
Bill Coleman: We really got the product right. The "Skynet" version that would have shipped this year was the version 3.0 implementation of cloud -- totally general, global, and a true utility supporting any policy in any heterogeneous environment and spanning clouds arbitrarily. We had two problems: (1) timing. We were too early. Enterprises are not ready for the full cloud model yet. They are still playing with the first baby steps (e.g. virtualization and cloud 1.0 -- Infrastructure- and Platform-as-a-Service); and (2) the way enterprises run their IT infrastructure. The market has become conservative when it comes to taking risk on start-ups with their mission-critical systems. They are still having difficulties even moving VMware into their mission-critical applications.

DCD: What would you do differently if you were starting Cassatt over right now?
Bill Coleman: Well, enterprise infrastructure software is a large-company game now, except for incremental capabilities designed to get enough traction to be bought by the big guys. These companies are the big guys' innovation laboratory. Today I would focus on vertical market dislocations like clean tech or health care. Or I would focus on Web 3.0 capabilities that bring monetization to social networking. Or on a big-play, leveraged buyout of assets to attack the cloud services market for enterprise-scale private-to-public cloud migrations.

DCD: We're starting to hear some positive signs on the general economy. Where do you think the U.S. economy is right now? Is Silicon Valley poised to play a leading role in the recovery or not -- and has that changed since the beginning of the year?
Bill Coleman: I am not an economist, but my gut is that we are at or near the bottom. That said, I think jobs will continue to be lost for another year or two and the economy will take at least five years to climb back to the levels we were at in 2007. I think Silicon Valley will be part of the new economic growth particularly in clean tech, bio and nanotech, and cloud computing. However, I am very concerned that the U.S. is rapidly becoming less and less competitive internationally because of the continued deterioration in education. And I'm worried about the regulatory drift making it harder to attract the best and brightest from the rest of the world and making it harder for a start-up to succeed. Finally, I fear that the negative drift in our tax structure and our trade policies are discouraging new business growth in this country relative to our competitors in Europe and Asia.

DCD: Based upon your experiences and your view of how the economy is faring right now, what advice do you have for the management teams and investors that are working on start-ups right now?
Bill Coleman: Focus on dislocations. Find and build great teams who have a maniacal focus on customer value. This has not changed. What has changed are areas of focus and the ability to monetize their investments. I don't think that the opportunities in traditional computer or communications software and hardware will be as productive going forward, we are now moving toward commoditization of those technologies. The investments there will be mostly incremental capabilities that will end in acquisition, if successful. The areas I see of most interest in technology are what this commoditization will enable: the Web 3.0 "pull" economy, commoditization and consolidation of all ICT services, biotech, nanotech, and the application of IT to transform service delivery in areas such as energy, health care, and -- ultimately -- education.

Thanks for the chat, Bill. I, along with many others, will indeed be staying tuned.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Confessions of a guy who tried to define cloud computing

The first step to a cure is admitting you have a problem. OK, I admit it.

I keep trying to help define cloud computing.

Every time I see the topic come up on a blog or in one of the industry trade pubs (or rather, "industry trade sites" -- the printed publication part is rapidly falling by the wayside), I'm tempted to leave a quick comment with my take on how well or badly I thought the author used the term "cloud." Especially if the word "private" accompanies the word "cloud."

I freely admit that as recently as today, I responded to someone on Twitter who in my opinion was off-base in his use of "virtualization" to define "private cloud" (you know who you are).

But I confess, I should know better. The rest of the market, with its hoard of vendors and oodles of analysts (though I read here it's a "quibble of analysts"), has spent countless hours, thousands of tweets, and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of expert reports trying to get to that golden definition.

And each time someone smart, or clever, or at least popular, tries to set the official definition down in stone, someone else feels he or she has to say "yes, but...."

Out of the peanut gallery, into the fire

So enough of this chattering from the peanut gallery, I said to myself. I should force myself to actually try to write down what I think cloud computing is, what it could mean to IT and the businesses they support, and maybe that would help me achieve final enlightenment. One of the publications for small-to-medium-sized businesses near CA's headquarters on Long Island was interested in 700 words on the topic. Perfect, I thought. Plus, hey, worst case I could use the content as fodder for future PowerPoint slides, right?

I should have known better. First, I churned out an extra 573 words that didn't make it from the original version to print (er, publication). Second, having to focus the article for SMB meant that any reference to a private cloud was out the window. (Controversy averted, I guess.) Third, and I'm guessing here, I'll bet the editor wasn't someone deeply enmeshed in daily back-and-forths about the nuances of whether things like Amazon's new Virtual Private Cloud is a "virtual (private cloud)" or a "(virtually private) cloud."

And, in the end, those are all good things.

The process of writing that short article -- and wrestling with how to explain cloud in its simplest form – helped me realize that a lot of the definitional wrangling is missing the main point. The point that hit me was this: cloud is a new and very different approach to running IT. It will be right to pursue today for some, later for others. It has the possibility of redefining a lot of things for the better -- like only paying for what you use, and getting humans out of many of the arduous, error-prone manual configuration tasks required today to keep business humming along.

But, if you don't make your words straightforward enough for everyone to understand -- or if you insist on slavishly drawing and following draconian definitions -- we'll all miss the big picture. And maybe the big benefits. Why? Merely because we're arguing too loudly over religious, definitional wars. (Like the definition wars that the Amazon VPC announcement kicked up. Michael Cote wrote a nice article on that news, by the way.)

There are certainly things I would change about any given definition of cloud computing, private clouds, public clouds, hybrid clouds, and the like. Including mine, now that I read it again. (The best test, by the way, is this: ask your favorite IT ops guy. I'm betting he has a definition, too. And I bet it's a bit different from anything you've concocted because it will be based on his organization's particular circumstances.)

As I learned through this process: that's OK. I now kind of agree with what Gartner's Tom Bittman said in his blog a few weeks back: "There has been an awful lot of definitional talk about cloud computing and private clouds for the past year. Time to move on."

Of course, there is one thing I do like about how I wrote my definition of cloud computing. Nowhere in the 700 words did it use the word "virtualization."

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Isn't IT automation inherently evil? (I mean, you saw 'The Terminator,' right?)

While the general take on CloudWorld in San Francisco last week may have been that it was merely a shadow of what industry attendees were expecting, at least one presentation seems to have registered on the "worthy-of-discussion" meter. Lew Tucker from Sun was written up by Larry Dignan of ZDNet, Reuven Cohen, The Register, and others, for Lew's commentary on self-provisioning applications and "future cloud apps that won't need humans."

A couple things strike me about this "humanless computing" (as Reuven put it): first, whether people really think it through or not, this kind of automation is absolutely required for cloud computing. The types of dynamic infrastructures that businesses are hoping to get from the cloud just can't have a human in the minute-by-minute IT operations loop. (See also: human telephone switch operators.)

OK, fine. But that brings me to point #2: people hate automation. It's assumed to be faceless, out of control, and most likely up to no good. There's a whole Terminator movie & TV franchise built on the premise that the "rise of the machines" is to be avoided at all costs.

But while the evil of IT automation is great fodder for summer blockbusters, it's bad IT policy. Some specifics to think about:

Automation is a big part of cloud computing
Automation similar to what Lew was explaining is at the core of what cloud computing really is (or more honestly, what it will be when it's fully realized). Contrary to what many folks assume, the core requirement for a cloud is not virtualization. Virtualization is a technology that can be helpful in creating a cloud-style model, but it's not an absolute necessity. On the other hand, automation is one of those core cloud requirements -- the ability for systems to scale up and down without manual efforts, adding and releasing resources, and in many respects managing themselves.

Lori MacVittie of F5 explained this well in her post about "Putting the Cloud Before the Horse." "It isn't really a cloud unless it's automated," said Lori. "Without that automation what do you have? A bunch of servers running applications. That those applications are virtualized is really irrelevant to the architecture because you haven't done anything but changed which physical server they're being deployed on. Without the ability for the infrastructure to make decisions based on actionable data that's shared between the components, you really don't have anything all that much different than you did before."

Automation remains scary to IT shops
Earlier this year, before CA's acquisition of the Cassatt assets and expertise, I wrote a bit about some of the reasons that IT remains leery of automation and boiled it down to three reasons: the IT operations folks are a conservative bunch (and rightly so), automation requires a great deal of trust, and vendors have made it hard on themselves by frequently overpromising and under-delivering.

The complexity of IT environments is part of the problem here, something that Forrester’s Glenn O’Donnell underscored in "IT Operations 2009: An Automation Odyssey" (Forrester client link) last month (Denise Dubie of Network World did a nice analysis of Glenn's paper here.) "A combination of forces, including skyrocketing complexity and severe economic pressure, are radically and irreversibly altering the IT landscape," said Glenn. "Evidence indicates an automation 'tipping point' is already under way this year."

2009 as the tipping point for automation?
So, if you agree that automation is an important piece for enterprises to begin to use public and private clouds, and you agree that IT avoids automation like the plague, are we at an impasse? Why would this year (of all years) see huge shifts?

As I speculated earlier and as Glenn notes, "the one-two punch of virtualization and economic pressure represents a tectonic shift for IT. For many IT services, complexity has surpassed human ability." (Once again, see also: human telephone switch operators.)
So does that mean it's time to jump in whole hog? As with anything in the enterprise, don't bet on it. Glenn has two good bits of advice here. First, find your threshold for automation. For every IT organization that will be different.

To steal (and probably mangle) an analogy from Cassatt's former CTO Rob Gingell, some IT folks are like new Prius owners that go through their daily commute entranced by the little dashboard graphics showing when & how different parts of their hybrid engine are charging up or firing away. Others are less interested in the moment-by-moment changes going on and trust that the engine will do what it's supposed to do. (Often these are the same people, just a few weeks later.) This second group are the ones who are more willing to try more automation (after they see it perform admirably on its test runs, of course). Those are also the ones where the costs of tools, people, and process improvements (what Glenn calls "automation pain") are going to be offset by their org's "automation gain," an important balance to strike.
Another point Rob Gingell often makes is that the history of computing has been all about the drive toward increasing automation. Cloud computing is just another step. Previously you'd have to tell your operating system to do things in order for computing to proceed -- a step that we've thankfully evolved beyond. It will be the same with applications self-provisioning to maintain their service levels. Eventually.

OK, but shouldn't we still be a little worried about the Terminator scenario?
Lew Tucker's CloudWorld talk referenced Skynet, the self-aware (and quite nasty) computing system from the Terminator movies. He gave a nod to the underlying worry we humans have (at least, IT operations humans have) that the moral equivalent of a T-1000 is going to show up and take out some critical part of your data center and bring down important applications. And, sure, there are some twisted ways that automation can go wrong. (Stuart Charlton of Elastra pointed me to some amusing ones, which also note where humans make things worse.)

But, it was with no small amount of irony that Cassatt used the Skynet name as the internal codename for our next-generation product architecture, in which more and more of the things your system needs to do to were handled autonomously, not for purposes of world domination or hunting down the last remaining humans, but instead to maintain application service levels.

Be on the correct side of history
So, scary as things could seem around cloud computing and automating IT operations, it's logical that it will follow the pattern that enterprise IT has followed since it began: there is a gradual move toward making the impossible or hard-to-imagine things possible, even if the rate of that movement is somewhat unpredictable. Not long ago, doing e-commerce and Internet banking were seen as science fiction. Little by little, the risks became manageable and/or understood. IT incorporated what was needed and moved on.
I expect much the same is in store for the automation that's needed to enable cloud computing. Why? Lori MacVittie put it well: "If you want to take it to the next level, you're going to have to automate processes because that's where real operational benefits will be realized."

One other suggestion for those whose jobs are potentially impacted by automation comes from Glenn's work at Forrester: "Be the automator not the automated." Especially as the economy is forcing drastic cuts or at least hard choices, being on the side of providing the solution is more advisable. So, think a bit about how automation could actually make a difference, and help advocate that change.
So, in the end, IT automation is both important and possible. It's the key to some of the new cloud-driven capabilities that are within reach for organizations. Some organizations are jumping in with both feet now, and if Glenn's right a lot more will be experimenting this calendar year.

Which by some estimates is even a little late. I mean, wasn't Skynet supposed to take over starting in 1997?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Inklings of what you really need for cloud management

I've seen a number of articles in recent weeks recounting some of the issues that customers are going to have if they really, truly want to start using cloud computing in some capacity. A number of the presenters at this week's Cloud World Expo said much the same.

And it's not pretty. For example:

David Linthicum, in an Intelligent Enterprise piece recently, rattled off some pretty serious issues to consider before deciding whether an application is at all a fit for any sort of cloud architecture. It included compliance, privacy, fear, and control. Along with his suggestions for working through these items, he concluded there are some apps where using a cloud will never make sense. "Cloud computing," he writes, "is almost never cost effective or a good technical fit for all applications." [Emphasis mine.]

Gordon Haff of Illuminata had a similar Top 10 list of observations about where we are today in the cloud computing market. Several of his observations noted how complicated the real world always is, especially when compared with the PowerPoint version of our plans. Some "very real and very thorny" IT questions start to come up as people really start doing cloud computing, says Haff. Some of the tough ones he noted were security, compliance (again), data portability, and even legal matters, like what happens when the FBI shows up at a hosting provider with a search warrant.

How do you start to jump over these serious hurdles?

Several of the presentations I saw today at Cloud World in San Francisco from people like James Urquhart (Cisco), Sam Charrington (Appistry), CA's own Stephen Elliot, and Joe Weinman of AT&T hit the point home. Cloud computing has a number of big issues to solve. As Weinman said in the closing keynote panel, "The enterprise data center is not going to go away" just because cloud computing appeared on the scene. (In fact, if you believe Weinman, "AT&T has been in the cloud business since 1878," a comment which amused the audience.) The question, he said, becomes "how do you make all this stuff work optimally with all the trade-offs?"

One of the missing components needed to make sure a big IT shop can take advantage of some sort of cloud architecture -- internal, external, or somewhere in between -- is management. Pretty complex and thorough management, actually. The advent of serious cloud management capabilities is going to signal that this cloud computing stuff is going to be possible for mere mortals.

Maybe I wasn't paying enough attention to the "big guys" before (call it a start-up induced blind spot, perhaps), but several very established players are jumping into the space, including CA, the new home of Cassatt employees and technology assets. CA used this week's Next Generation Data Center and Cloud World and whatever-other-names-IDG-is-using-this-year Conference to announce Amazon EC2-related capabilities across a large number of its products. The CA press release is posted here.

Is EC2 support an important thing?

Sure, the CA EC2 support is nice, but in fact I think the more interesting angle on this announcement is that a company like CA is starting to weave cloud capabilities into its entire (very broad) product line. Since CA started talking about its activity in the cloud space last November, they've now brought data center automation, application performance management, database management, and service management into the mix. And systems management is underway.

Moves like what CA is doing are starting to answer a lot of the "thorny questions" that customers are asking. Sure, there are more solutions and capabilities to deliver. But, if the industry discussion and conference chatter is any indication, people are starting to ask questions about how they cover a lot of the messier areas to make cloud computing work. And the first steps at answering those questions are appearing.

There's lots of work to do, but the more we as an industry talk about the real issues customers are going to have when incorporating cloud computing in their IT portfolio, and the less we sweep it under a layer of hype, the better.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

U.S. CTO Chopra: 'What can we deliver in 90 days?'

For the United States' Chief Technology Officer, the first visit to Silicon Valley is probably a bit like a new Secretary of State's first visit to Russia, China, or the E.U. All eyes are on you (is he a partner? adversary?), sizing you up, wondering who you really are and what change you can possibly bring.

For Aneesh Chopra, who took on the role of U.S. CTO in May, the challenge is even bigger: he's the first-ever U.S. CTO in history, with the opportunity to make or break the role. I attended the Churchill Club event Aug. 4 that was part of his first Bay Area trip to get a sense for what he intends to do.

If this quick snapshot is an indication, he’s a refreshingly charismatic personality, with little interest in waiting for the wheels of government to gradually spin through their normal machinations to deliver some eventual results (maybe). He talked innovation. He talked action. He talked about using quick, simple approaches to gnarly topics like visibility into what the government actually does with its $74 billion IT budget.

And, most appealing to many in the audience: he talked about doing it soon. Repeatedly during the presentation he highlighted not only an interest in doing things right for the long term, but in making tangible progress now. He kept coming back to this directive: "What can we deliver in 90 days to show progress? What can we do in the here and now?"

In fact, I think there's a broader lesson in his remarks for anyone (IT ops folks, especially) who has to manage major infrastructure and technology changes in pretty conservative, slow-moving environments. His approach is a good one: have big goals, but make sure you can show short-term progress. And, then, of course, be a phenomenal communicator and sell that vision, baby.

IT is a driver in this White House

The goals he outlined were no big revelation. He talked about infrastructure (like broadband), R&D collaboration, and educating a 21st Century workforce. He talked health IT, smart grid & energy independence, and education technology. He talked government transparency and consistent federal IT platforms. “In public policy, we eat our own proverbial dog food,” Chopra noted. All fine, but it's his more dynamic approach that's really the thing worth noting.

One of the amusing slides Chopra showed was of President Obama clicking around on a Web page, checking out one of his administration's first IT deliverables -- a site about where IT spend goes. "That’s my boss," Chopra noted with understated amusement. It was good for a chuckle, but there are two good things about that picture: the hands-on approach that Obama himself and his administration are taking in pushing technology to fill a role in government it has really never been very successful at: transparency & access. Second, because technology seems to be at the center of a lot of Obama's management approach, it's no longer a siloed discipline inside the government, but instead is being used to drive everything else.

This is obviously trickling down in many of the other remarks Chopra made:

It needs to be easy

Our personal embrace of the "digital life," said Chopra, "has not translated to global competitiveness and our public policy. It should be just as easy to get things going in government as in your personal life with things like Facebook or Twitter," said Chopra.

Of course, he admitted, it's "not the easiest thing to bring those innovations to the federal government." So the question is how.

There's simple stuff we can do

In answering questions about how to help use technology to enable higher education, Chopra emphasized a practical, get-something-out-the-door approach he underscored a number of times. "There's some simple stuff we can do," he said, with no extra money, no new laws required. Chopra told a couple stories of his time working as CTO for Virginia, including one in which technology approaches like a wiki (and asking for free contributed content from experts) helped new physics textbook content go from idea, to creation, to school district availability in less than a year -- 3 years faster than business as usual. (Thanks to @herrod for the link.)

"We need to harvest this same spirit," said Chopra.

Entrepreneurs, Chopra said, can help lower costs for public services with innovative ideas, but not alone. And also not by getting some huge government grants. Instead Chopra talked up collaboration. We may develop innovative ideas "though government contracts, but more often than not, you'll do it with each other." (He called this the "spirit of the commonwealth," being from Virginia and all.)

Listen, listen, listen

Chopra repeated the often-lamented fact that IT and business are often on completely different pages. It's like "IT people speak French and business people speak English," he said. Why? "In large part [this is] because we don't listen very well. We must listen, listen, listen for customer needs."

When taking action, talk about verbs, not nouns

After listening, and then trying to make fixes, Chopra showed a bias toward rethinking what should get done, rather than just making a list of what to buy. In figuring out how to make progress on using IT to assist with education, Chopra said, "there are lots of debates about the nouns -- what we should be buying for education." But, he said, "in the short term, the focus needs to be on the verbs" -- what actions are actually being taken.

A Silicon Valley honeymoon?

Chopra seemed to get a pretty good reception from the audience at the event and in comments from people using Twitter to report on his presentation (I saw good tweets from @timoreilly, @Jakewk, @DavidHurwitz, @mmasnick and others at #churchillclub and #aneeshchopra for starters). Backlash, of course, is probably already underway, but I think most of this should play well with the IT industry and IT folks in general. Aneesh Chopra has a big battleship to turn. If he can show the short-term, entrepreneurial progress he advocates, though, he's going to have a lot of folks clamoring to help turn it.

More background on Aneesh Chopra

TechCrunch did a good summary of the August 4 Churchill event here. Also, take a look at Tim O’Reilly's glowing assessment of Chopra just after his appointment was announced. The Wall Street Journal also included industry reaction to his appointment in this piece, also from April.

Update: "My very dear friend" Ashlee Vance ran a good overview of the event in his New York Times blog. Chris Preimesberger of eWeek also wrote up the event.