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.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Connecting some dots from Cloud Connect: everyone was "all in"

Several folks have asked me what I thought about the Cloud Connect conference (#ccevent on Twitter) in Santa Clara. Even though I was geographically challenged for the first part of the conference because of an East Coast business trip, I made it back in time for some really good content. And judging from the buzz, the part I saw was not the exception. Kudos to Alistair Croll and team.

Here are some impressions I had about the event:

· There weren’t a lot of end users. This wasn’t surprising; there haven’t been many end users at any of the cloud events I’ve been to recently. I don’t take that as damning feedback. It’s where the industry is at this point. Customers are in the early stages. And, as Brenda Michelson has pointed out on Twitter, it’s probably a good thing that customers are too busy to come to something like this right now. It might mean they're busy doing real cloud implementations. But the customer attendance issue is certainly an angle to watch; it has to change this year (and I expect it will).

· The presenters were cloud experts, serious, and focused. The people presenting were experts who knew their topic areas cold. The panels were stacked with the right experts. And, from the company names represented onstage and in the audience, the cloud computing market and the people backing it are very serious. Anyone having any doubts about whether things in the cloud space are going to take off should take note of what vendors were present and their focus. It was the big guys. It was the small guys. To borrow a phrase, it seems everyone is “all in” when it comes to cloud computing.

· The more basic sessions were solid and didn’t waste time on too much definitional hand-wringing. Presentations like John Treadway and Killian Murphy’s session on private clouds were very well thought through and articulated. This was Cloud 101, with all of the back-up of a graduate level course right behind it.

· What’s old is new again. The cloud adoption panel included ING US and Boeing, who commented on just how important some of the older IT disciplines actually are, even though a lot of the force driving adoption of cloudy ways is coming from a younger generation of IT professionals. Just because cloud computing is in the mix, you don't have the right to forget about some of the basic, smart processes and concerns (oh, like, say management) that IT has always had to have in place.

· Other interesting topics that had good content: the reasons behind application mobility and implications to think about (thanks, Rich Miller), thoughts on drivers of enterprise cloud adoption, the legal ramifications of cloud computing and how things could play out ("get your general counsel involved"), and some end-of-the-day brain bending on the implications for human beings if this whole cloud thing means computing becomes ubiquitous.

· Of course, nothing really got solved. But whatever does at a conference? The sticky problems are still the sticky problems. There was a great deal of unhappiness about standards (which resulted in a bit of animosity in the room during the panel on that topic), for example. On the other hand, tracks like Joe Weinman’s on Cloudonomics had some good, meaty content in them and no actual hand-to-hand combat broke out. (CA Distinguished Engineer Steve Oberlin’s posted his comments from the ROI panel here, pointing out that IT often forgets to look past cost savings to the “priceless” importance of cloud computing’s agility benefits.) The cloud networking panel James Urquhart moderated dealt with the realities, the issues, and the promise of that topic – which seemed to provide a good balance.

· The cloud market is a little bit “clubby” still. The people presenting seemed to know about 50% of the people in each of the sessions. That’s good, in that the people who are moving this industry forward are also the ones attending. That’s bad because people often spoke in 140-character code or inside jokes, occasionally had side conversations during their presentations with particular individuals in the audience, and sometimes left some of the customer benefits of cloud computing unsaid. It’s good to be well-connected, but don’t forget to explain the basics at the right times. Especially if we want actual users to attend – and get something out of it.

· Live events like this are all about networking – and Tweeting. This is certainly related to my previous point. In fact, I noticed two healthy Twitter backchannels. The first was commenting on and reacting to the content being discussed onstage. The second was all about putting real faces to the Twitter avatars of folks that many of the industry insiders regularly communicate with on-line. This was a great chance to make real, live cloud connections.

Having said all that, I noticed that Clay Rider posted a bit of an opposing view on the conference. He was looking for insights into a monolithic and (to hear him tell it) elusive “cloud market,” to understand why the vendor focus and VC investment is at such a fever pitch. I’m not one of those strict definition kinds of people, but would rather make sure that we’re simply focusing on what customers want and answering their needs with real solutions. Despite his more negative assessment, I like his conclusion:

“Ultimately, the right answer may be to stop looking for the Cloud market altogether. Perhaps Cloud is really just an intelligent delivery model that addresses the state of art in IT. Maybe Cloud is a process, not a product. As such, things would make a whole lot more sense than the confusing overlap of jargon and techno-obfuscation that so many undertake in the name of the Cloud. This would be a welcome improvement not only in nomenclature, but perhaps in market clarity, which would then help drive market adoption. Money tends to follow well defined paths to ROI. Why should Clouds be any different?”

My biggest regret about Cloud Connect, aside from missing several of the key panels, though, was not being around for the San Francisco Cloud Club’s extended after-hours get-together, focused this time on PaaS. The two previous Cloud Club events I’ve been to were really interesting opportunities to dig into cloud computing issues with a bunch of people who think about this day in and day out.

So, if the Cloud Connect folks could just work around my schedule for next year’s event, that’d be greatly appreciated. Except for the standards panel; I can miss that next time around. Unless, of course, someone follows through on Lori MacVittie’s idea and stages it as a boxing match. That’d be worth changing my flights for.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

CA and Nimsoft: Because smaller companies have different IT management requirements, but seem eager for cloud

If you’ve been watching CA, you’ve noticed some recently announced acquisitions that, when they close, will help us enable customers to make a transition to a cloud-connected enterprise, notably 3Tera, Oblicore, and Cassatt. And while the 3Tera and Oblicore deals in particular have a strong focus on managed service providers (MSPs) as customers, much of the end user interest in these solutions comes pretty exclusively from the largest enterprises.
Which begs the question, what about the slightly smaller companies? How are they looking to navigate the clouds and approach IT management in general?

Funny you should ask…
Today’s announcement that CA has signed a definitive agreement to acquire Nimsoft is an acknowledgement by CA that the group of companies a bit below the world’s biggest ones has a very particular set of requirements that, up until now, we have not really addressed. Nimsoft, however, as a provider of IT performance and availability software, has done a very good job of tailoring both its product (you can see a 13-minute demo here) and its way of working with customers to their specific needs.

With Nimsoft, CA can bring a tailored IT management solution to a new set of customers -- emerging enterprises, emerging national markets, and the MPSs and cloud service providers that serve those markets.

Who are the “emerging enterprises”?

To be clear, we’re still talking about some pretty large companies. Our internal categorization calls the group the “emerging enterprises” (of course, everyone has a different label). To CA, these emerging enterprises are the companies with annual revenues of less than $2 billion, but more than about $300 million. While the world’s mega-corporations may be a bit sluggish about adopting cloud computing, many signs point to the fact these emerging enterprises are also the ones that are experimenting with cloud computing in a much more significant way.

In addition, the MSPs and cloud service providers that serve these organizations are also some of the entities making the biggest strides when it comes to cloud computing.

But to serve these emerging enterprises, you have to do things differently
As Nimsoft knows firsthand, the emerging enterprises and these MSPs and cloud service providers require you to do things differently. How?

First, the software needs to be straightforward (and even easy) to install, use, and maintain. It needs to have a very broad but focused set of functional capabilities, stretching across a significant amount of the environments, components, and devices that an organization will want to manage, inside and outside its four walls.
Nimsoft fits that bill nicely. In fact, Nimsoft has been doing that so well, that many have called it (rightly or wrongly) an alternative to solutions from the Big Four management vendors. More about that in a moment.

The second requirement that’s pretty drastically different for smaller enterprises is that they are actually much more likely to buy their IT management capabilities from MSPs. 300 of Nimsoft’s 800 customers are MSPs today, often providing IT management services via the cloud to their end users.

When you start thinking about markets that are served via MSPs, there’s another whole set of customers that can be addressed – emerging national geographies. In the same way that some developing countries skipped the land-line phone infrastructure and went straight to wireless, many end user organizations outside of the more IT-mature geographies are thinking about avoiding data center build-outs altogether, and going to cloud computing. Or, if they are doing their own data center, then they are considering managing their environment by an MSP’s remote monitoring capabilities. Either way, IT management provided as a service is front and center.
So why is this customer segment (and therefore Nimsoft itself) interesting to CA?

CA has long been in the IT management software space. However, what I’ve seen in the past 6 months since I came aboard is a very serious focus on making changes to move CA from the slow, steady, “value” company it has been to one focused on growth. You can see the big bets that CA is placing to make this transition: we’re making significant invesments (through acquisition and internal development) on the software that large customers will need to be successful transitioning to and managing cloud computing. With Nimsoft, we’re also expanding the set of customers that we serve.

Why? That is where the new growth is. While the largest of the large companies do account for a big chunk of the IT management spending now and over the next few years, you may be surprised at how significant the emerging enterprises will be. Our numbers find them making up approximately 25% of the software spending in the market CA addresses (parts of the IT management software market, plus a few other areas) by 2013. That’s big, and something that CA hasn’t really touched before now.

If the product is that cool, what’s kept Nimsoft from having luck selling to larger companies?

Nimsoft has had great success. They fill the gap in the market above open source and low-end solutions, but below things like what CA’s Service Assurance products (Spectrum, eHealth, NetQoS, and Wily) provide. The truth is that Nimsoft has also had luck with some very large companies who, at first blush, you’d expect to buy a more global-style solution. However, what we mostly heard when we talked to their customers was that where large customers had bought Nimsoft, they use it for specific, departmental needs, while making use of another tool from CA or others for the enterprise-wide or more in-depth tasks or analysis. This is the reason CA is saying it plans to invest in both its current Service Assurance product line and Nimsoft – these products address different markets with different customer requirements. There will always be some gray area, but we’ll work through that as the companies come together.

Nimsoft fits into the CA Cloud Products & Solutions Business Line

To bring Nimsoft onboard, CA seems to have learned a lot from its Wily acquisition a number of years back. Like Wily, Nimsoft will be kept intact as a stand-alone business unit. It will become major new piece of Chris O'Malley's new Cloud Products and Solutions Business Line. CA plans to build on what Nimsoft has done and the success they’ve had with MSPs and emerging enterprises. This should also enable us to tap into those emerging geographic markets I mentioned earlier.

Nimsoft should fit nicely into the Cloud organization at CA – they’ve been thinking about their tool as something that helps monitor both internal and cloud environments. Check out their Unified Monitoring site for a peek at some of the cool things they can do. It’s a bit of a high-level weather report for the cloud. It monitors up/down status for popular public cloud offerings from the likes of Amazon Web Services, Google App Engine, salesforce.com, Rackspace, and others.

This acquisition is not about technology, it’s about the market

The bottom line for this announcement is that it’s very different from the others recently announced by CA. The Nimsoft deal is less about the technology (though their technology is pretty interesting on its own) and more about the market.

By acquiring Nimsoft, CA gets a solution for customer segments that it has not typically had offerings for. These markets become one of the key places CA is going to focus for growth going forward.

And, Nimsoft will (after the close) provide CA with a really good example of what happens when you listen to your customers’ needs very precisely. Here’s to more of the same.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Going rogue, cloud computing-style: what you can learn by going around IT

I have to say, the San Francisco Cloud Club (#sfcloudclub on Twitter) is a great place to hear good ideas get batted around.

For the uninitiated, the group is a bunch of cloud computing experts, thinkers, and doers from around the Bay Area who occasionally give up an evening for a good discussion/argument or two about what’s happening in this market. (I wrote up one of the previous lively, cloud-filled conversations this group hosted in an earlier post: “Two cloud computing Rorschach tests: ‘legacy clouds’ and the lock-in lesson” for those who want to get a taste for the group’s content.)

As the group is getting ready for an expanded meeting of the minds connected with the upcoming Cloud Connect conference in Santa Clara (March 15-18), I realized that I’m still mulling over an idea or two about the psychology of cloud computing adoption brought up about the during the group’s MLK Day get-together in January.

Big companies will adopt cloud computing very conservatively, right?

Back at that meeting, we spent a bit of time on how companies are actually adopting cloud computing. The difficulty that big companies currently have with the public cloud has been covered extensively. It’s worrisome for them, thanks to things we’ve all heard about, like security, performance and reliability, and lock-in worries. At Cloud Club, we discussed how many orgs, as a result, are (officially, anyway) saying that they want to work on private clouds instead.

But most interestingly, we also discussed the truly amazing tendency that people in even in the most conservative IT organizations have to, well, “go rogue.”

In some of the most locked-down IT environments, folks try innovative stuff on their own, even when it doesn’t meet all of their strict requirements. Why? To help them get their job done in a much better or faster way.

Now that’s interesting.
Several of the Cloud Club attendees talked about “innovation on the edges” of organizations, but even when a company’s party line is to take this cloud thing one step at a time, there are people in the middle of it all trying some pretty aggressive stuff. I’ve heard the story many times of how the developers at Fill in Big Company Name Here had each been racking up independently huge bills (totaling in the millions of dollars if you believe some stories) for services like Amazon EC2 without an official mandate to do so. In fact, in some cases ignoring an official policy not to do such things.

Ah, cloud people do the darndest things.

Despite the rules, cloud computing just might seep in to organizations

After hearing this same story from a bunch of sources, I’m coming to the conclusion that this is the way the adoption of cloud computing is really going to go. It’s going to seep into organizations, like many other compelling technologies and approaches have before it.

A now-old-school example (and the one that I had the most direct connection with) of this organic, under-the-radar type of adoption was the way the BEA WebLogic app server found its way into organizations in the late ‘90s. It was picked up by people (developers) who found it the most useful way to get their concept from idea to working app. BEA and Java rode that wave quite some distance.

And, of course, that approach isn’t unique; open source is all about this. The “freemium” approach requires this same groundswell of interest up front to have a set of targets to upsell.

Is “going rogue” in IT good or bad?

Are “mavericky” installations something to be encouraged – or rooted out? With these projects, you certainly have a chance to apply a very specific solution to a very specific problem. I’ve generally found that to be the best way to see if something works or not.

So, then, the real question will be how organizations deal with these “rogue elements” after the fact.

Some of the rogues will be business owners who wanted to get something that they perceive they cannot currently get from central IT. Others will actually be IT folks themselves, knowing what their restrictions would be if they did things the “right” way, who were trying either an end-run in hopes of getting results that would make people take notice or who actually had at least some sort of tacit approval.

As CIOs and central IT work to get ahead of the issues that cloud computing is bringing, they will have a choice. They can bring the hammer down and punish those who went around the letter of the law to use cloud computing in unsanctioned ways. This has the very real possibility of crushing not only the entrepreneurial spirit of those who tried the new approach, but also discrediting the results they achieved (even if they are impressive in terms of either cost or agility).

Andi Mann’s EMA Responsible Cloud survey talked about this (I can still talk about the survey he ran while at EMA, even though he’s now a CA employee, right? For the record, I’m very happy to have his expertise onboard here and still have great respect for the EMA team). The EMA survey said that these unauthorized “skunkworks” cloud computing implementations showed “all the positive aspects of the pioneering spirit of the wild west cowboy” and can highlight “a valid use case, and help to advance the organization as a whole.”

These rogue implementations “can provide exceptional early stage experience and value. Practitioners attain skills, mistakes provide lessons, and experiences provide a basis for building an enterprise approach.”

How to rein in the cloud computing cowboys

To deal with them, then, EMA noted, “the key…is to recognize when such use cases happen, understand why they happen, be prepared to both take advantage of these opportunities, and be able to pull them back into a Responsible Cloud model when required.”

In my interview with Andi from a couple months ago, he suggested this approach that I liked: over time, these cowboys can potentially become important contributors in a new cloud group within IT, with a mandate to experiment -- to go outside the box. They can start with non-disruptive systems and experimental applications at first, but over time can start to apply their approach to more important systems, too, if and when that makes sense.

“Certainly stomping them out is not the answer,” said Andi. “Instead, by finding out what they are doing and why, you will learn what is broken and how to fix it.”

It’s a delicate balance, but one that can have some interesting pay-offs as organizations experiment – secretly or out in the open – with cloud computing.

If you’re interested in a literal snapshot into the San Francisco Cloud Club discussions, Gary Orenstein posted pics from the January gathering here. You’ll notice I keep my usual very low profile.