Sunday, August 21, 2011

Why cloud computing hype isn't bad for IT after all

A week or two back, ReadWriteWeb ran and published the results of a reader poll of the “most over-hyped cloud technologies.” Amusingly, the results (aside from a NoSQL mention) read like the basic NIST definition of the key components of cloud computing. Software as a Service, private clouds, Infrastructure as a Service, and Platform as a Service all made the top 5.

Wow, I thought. That barely scratches the surface. Plenty more cloud computing terms were enjoying their moment of irrational exuberance, but were being left out in the cold by this particular survey. A few Twitter conversations unearthed some very deserving nominations. Not to be forgotten:

Hybrid clouds. Apparently hybrid clouds didn’t have quite enough hype-y-ness to make the list. Weird, considering that term tends to be the punch line to nearly every cloud strategy and direction conversation that I hear. Better luck at next year’s awards ceremony, I guess.

Cloud bursting (nominated by @reillyusa and @AaronMotsinger). Some folks have been arguing back and forth about whether it is really a legitimate (or even possible) use case. @pdowning1077 noted he much preferred the term “capacity on demand,” but that doesn’t help settle the argument.

Cloud brokers. Forrester has been posting some interesting research for its subscribers on this new role (also defined by NIST in the July 5 version of its standards roadmap, if you want a standards org to weigh in for legitimacy). I’d say this conversation is still very early. The hype wagon train for this term has just set off down the road.

But probably the most impactful comment was another by @pdowning1077. “How about just the term ‘cloud’ [in general]?” he asked. How could they forget to include the mother of all hype-worthy terms in their polling?

So much hype that “cloud computing” becomes meaningless?

The same week of all this discussion, David Linthicum reported that cloud computing (the term) had now become essentially “meaningless.” That comment came on the heels of Gartner’s annual publication of their hype cycles. A quick scan notes that cloud computing is still close to where it was last year, just nosing over the (hype-laden) peak of inflated expectations. Private cloud computing is rapidly moving to join it, perched perilously over the trough of disillusionment, ready to take the leap.

OK, no one would argue with the extreme levels of marketing attention from everyone from start-ups to 30-year-old software companies (who, us?) to service providers. But just because a bunch of marketing people are in a frenzy doesn’t mean we should write off the trend they are talking about as a bunch of meaningless fluff.

The hype has caused IT to pay attention to cloud computing

In fact, if I’m reading the market right, I’d say that there are actually some really good things that have come out of the hype around cloud (and continue to do so).

We suddenly had something to call this good idea. There were a bunch of technologies and entrepreneurs out there struggling for several years to put a palatable name to what they were working on. Some started off calling this grid computing, some utility computing, and others more obscure terms than those. But, the early hype around cloud computing a few years back gave a name to the idea. We pulled several of these companies into CA (Cassatt and 3Tera, to name two), but many others were struggling with this same issue. One of my early posts on this blog was about how the term private cloud may not have been precise or perfect, but it enabled us to have the right conversation. I think the same thing goes for the overall cloud computing concept.

It created a way to catch the attention and imagination of enterprise IT. By talking about a Big Vision of IT infrastructure that matched compute supply with compute demands at any given time (and matched costs accordingly), ears perked up. It was the next logical topic to discuss with the IT guys who were fresh from thinking about how virtualization could free them up from particular pieces of hardware. In a world in which IT is fighting for every budget dollar, mostly just to keep treading water, an idea about how to get off this downhill hamster wheel is at least appealing to consider. That’s step one. (Ken Oestreich, by the way, has a great blog from a few months back on the brief history of the vision of cloud computing.)

The hype extended the discussion past the technologists to the business people. All the hubbub over cloud computing got the business users excited at a time when the economy was giving them little to be excited about. “So, you mean I might have a way to turn some of these business ideas into reality, despite the drubbing that the sour economy has given us and the measly budget that my IT partners say we have at our disposal?” This has been important – the business guys are the ones, in the end, pushing when IT starts to get nervous and pulls back from the visionary edge that cloud puts them on.

The hype has pressured big vendors into some self-reflection that will be beneficial for their customers. Many of the larger vendors jumped on the cloud bandwagon through new offerings, blatant rebranding of old offerings (shame on you), acquisitions, and the like. To make any of these moves, vendors have had to take stock and rethink what they can and should be providing given what their customers want. In some cases (like here at CA with Nimsoft), it causes the vendors to broaden the set of customers they are actually serving.

The intense amount of discussion has started an intense amount of scrutiny, revealing how useful cloud can actually be. One thing that happens when the hype levels reach fever pitch is that people start pushing back. The recent demand for real-world examples and exasperation over cloud outages has been the natural backlash from being force-fed lots and lots of best-case scenarios, rainbows, and unicorns. Journalists and analysts have often helped push for these kind of reality checks, though they also tend to pile on as technologies or ideas drop into the “trough of disillusionment” that Gartner is so fond of describing. Enterprise IT, business users, and the vendors themselves all eventually do a fair bit of policing, sometimes too late for their own good, but we seem to be headed in this (positive) direction right now.

So while a lot of the hype can seem like so much wasted energy from all parties, when the trend or shift being hyped actually has merit, something useful comes out the other end. Now, would

most of us (advertising agencies and ad reps excluded) prefer some way to skip the aggravation of this process and jump right to the end? I’d bet so. However, consider this all a bit of a trial by fire. The only way for something to be proven strong enough to pass through the fire is, well, to actually do it.

So, hold your nose and smile. Hype is good – with a few important caveats. Be critical. Be well-armed with the right questions to ask in order to discern the valuable from the merely fancifully over-marketed. Be ready to see the value in approaching something a new way, even if it’s something you’ve done the same way for decades. Be pragmatic enough to know it won’t happen overnight or with the wave of a magic wand.

If it makes you feel any better, cloud computing isn’t the only term getting the Gartner Hype Curve treatment this year. Added to the list, according to this ReadWriteWeb article, were big data, gamification, Internet of Things, and consumerization. Misery loves company, I guess.

And, in the meantime, it may be time to come up with your own term to start campaigning for next year’s Cloud Hype Awards. I think the hype is here to stay for a while longer.


Todd Culotta said...

I think this just shows that the Cloud industry is still the wild west and there will be opportunity for many companies to further define what it means for them. Great article!

Jay Fry said...

I agree. I think that's part of what makes this cloud stuff so compelling: you can use it to help do nearly anything. It's up to you. Though, the usual caveats apply...doing it well requires a little discipline, experience, and/or adult supervision.