Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A little healthy skepticism about cloud computing

Anyone currently involved in cloud computing as a customer, software/hardware vendor, or service provider would be well-served to have a healthy dose of skepticism about them at all times.

We’re (still) in the heady, early days of cloud computing. You know, the lofty part that Gartner labels on its hype curve as the “peak of inflated expectations.” Publications are filled with stories about the promise of cloud computing. Cloud events are popping up right and left (like, say, Cloud Connect, Cloud Expo, worldwide Cloud Camps, SF Cloud Club, and until very recently, two things named Cloud Slam). Customer success stories are still tought to come by and charges of “cloudwashing” are being flung around as some of the less reputable marketers quickly try to latch onto something to get their products some attention.

So how do you judge the merits of anything in an environment like this? The way you always should: consider the potential of the idea, and then watch the results.

This played out close to home for me over the past few months. It has been in this buzz-filled environment that I have been helping CA work on a number of cloud-related acquisitions (in fact, for those keeping track, the recently announced 3Tera and Nimsoft acquisitions are now officially done deals). A number of analysts and industry commentators have been impressed with what we’ve been working on, which is the reaction you always hope for when you are investing the many hours putting these things together.

But, to be honest, I think the more interesting reactions are the ones coming from the skeptics. And, even though I’m very close to the source on this, it’s obvious even to me that CA has a few challenges in today’s market – some from its corporate history and some from the environment overall.

What do you say when everything is going to be assumed to be hype?

One challenge is that the market discussion is puffed up with hugely inflated expectations (a perfect set-up for Gartner’s next stage, the oh-so-depressing-sounding “trough of disillusionment”). Anything we say about the potential of things like 3Tera’s ability to make it easier to configure and deploy applications to cloud environments can come off as unadulterated hype even when we really think we have something worth noting.

Another is CA’s own rocky past, which former CEO John Swainson worked hard to successfully rebuild. Unfortunately, I’ve seen the company’s old reputation appear either in lingering customer attitudes, the industry’s institutional memory, or by being fanned by competitors looking for an edge. That is what it is. Or rather, was.

An example: healthy skepticism from Nimsoft customers

Some comments, like those from Dan Kusnetzky of The 451 Group on his ZDNet blog, are about the approach of using acquisitions to build upon: “The company has been picking off innovative companies in the hopes of building a complete portfolio. This approach is fraught with risk. …They’ll have to move quickly and decisively to win.” Fair point – the strategy has risks, but one that gets me thinking about the innovation topic (and that’s worth a blog on its own).

The reaction to CA’s deal to acquire Nimsoft that we announced at the beginning of March is a more interesting example of this playing out.

On his blog, Nimsoft CEO Gary Read explained his rationale for doing this deal with CA.

“When CA first suggested a conversation, I admit I had a brief moment of hesitation, but I quickly realized that this could be the perfect partner for Nimsoft and our customers. CA is making a commitment from the highest level of the organization to be the leader in cloud management. They recognize the importance of Service Providers and Emerging Enterprises to this new world, and they are an important focus of CA’s growth strategy. They made it clear that they want us to innovate and pioneer and add resources to accelerate those efforts.”
If you read the comments from readers that follow, he has some who agree and others who are extremely skeptical. The skeptics fall into a few camps – those that share Kusnetzky’s wariness about the approach, those worried about Nimsoft getting lost or misdirected as part of any big organization, or those coming to the conversation with the same preconceptions that I noted earlier about The Old CA. (The third option is that some of those posting are Nimsoft competitors being negative to further their own cause, but I’ll leave that one alone.)

I think Gary answered them well, especially when asked how an alternative to the Big 4, as Nimsoft had pitched themselves previously, could actually be a part of the Big 4. (He, in part, says that CA is essentially saying by acquiring Nimsoft that “there is a type of customer that wants and needs a different type of monitoring solution than [CA has] provided in the past.” His full answer is here.)

The proof is in the actual results, of course

But no matter what I think, what Gary thinks, or what the CA-Nimsoft nay-sayers think, skepticism on all fronts is healthy. And I guess that’s my point. Despite the most well-designed strategy or well-intentioned efforts, actual results may vary. It’s up to CA and Nimsoft to deliver on our promises to MSPs and emerging enterprise customers. As Gary posted in his comments on the day of the original announcement, “all I ask is one thing…..let us prove you wrong," and be "open minded enough to admit it when we do.”

One bit of good news for customers? As noted above, CA is no longer the slash and burn company it used to be (or as the NetQoS guys put it, “CA is not Mordor”). All signs I’ve seen so far tell me that this organization has a newly stoked, aggressive appetite to lead, helping customers by anticipating how best to assist them with cloud computing and beyond.

But as I requested of Frost & Sullivan's Vanessa Alvarez on Twitter, watch what we’re doing and let us know what you think. I (and others deeply involved in this) am interested in feedback from customers, partners, and other experts. It matters.

And, still: the economy

Finally, balancing all of this, I think, is a bit of a hangover from the Great Recession that applies to everything in IT right now, cloud-related or not. While spending seems to be coming back, customers are not handing out blank checks. Nor are they likely to anytime soon.

And that’s good.

It means IT operations, IT management, application owners, CIOs – everyone involved is looking toward an economy that’s on the upswing. However, they are being practical about where they spend their first post-recession budget dollars. No assumptions are allowed to go very far without being tested.

As I said at the start: healthy skepticism is a great way to proceed. But do proceed. Especially as you look at what cloud computing could mean: it’s worth it.


Ramon Chen said...


Great set of articles this month and an excellent one to close out March. I've been watching CA's acquisitions with great interest and applaud the focus on “emerging enterprises”. It's definitely a group that needs the servicing and support of an established vendor such as CA.

I'm curious as to CA's position and your thoughts beyond cloud "enablement" and "management" infrastructure. Specifically in the area of Big Data. More specifically large scale analytics and long term retention of massive quantities of historical data. Particularly since CA itself has lots of legacy data (in mainframe databases and apps) which could use rennovating or conversion, prior to any cloud strategy.

I speak by way of offering a disclosure that my current company RainStor provides such a repository for massive scale storage of structured data in the cloud as well as on premise.

I look forward to your thoughts and keep up the great posts. I have added you to my blog roll at www.ramonchen.com


Ramon Chen
VP Product Management

Jay Fry said...

Thanks for reading and commenting - and the blog roll addition (I'll go take a look at what you're up to there). Glad I held your interest for the whole month. I'd better get started on April, eh? :)

You're definitely right that there are a number of important issues to consider around data. Cloud computing raises a number of thorny questions on how it's being held, the impact of what you do, and how you go about handling any change. It's worth a bit of research on my part; I have to say that I've mostly come at the topics I write about here from an infrastructure standpoint. But any concept talked about from that view must always be paired with the data discussion.

In fact, in every customer conversation that involves moving something (like an app) around, you quickly get to the "so what about my data?" question. I've seen it show up as a concern and a gating factor on surveys about interest in cloud computing.

Sounds like I've got some homework to do...