Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Derrick Harris interview: Cloud computing 'blows away' grid's value prop

For those who watch the cloud space, you probably noticed that the bad economy took down one of the more rational voices in the conversation a few weeks back. On Dec. 19, On-Demand Enterprise (once known as GRIDtoday) froze its content and sent its editorial staff packing. Their depressing blurb saying as much is atop all of their site’s pages now.

Derrick Harris, the editor of that publication, was one of the casualties. Derrick covered the move to on-demand computing in the virtual pages of that pub, helping clear away some of the fog for readers. He had been providing a sort of measuring stick for the expansion and shifts in the cloud discussion, and along the way was never afraid to call vendors on what they were doing. Needless to say, it was a bummer for the community to have that pub collapse.

The good news: I have it on good authority that you'll be hearing from Derrick again soon. In fact, he's due to resurface with the good folks over at GigaOM shortly. In the meantime, I thought I'd get Derrick's thoughts on the cloud computing space that he has covered pretty thoroughly for so long. (How's that for turning the tables a bit on one of our journalist friends?)

To give you an idea of his healthy skepticism, here's a bit from one of his posts last summer: "Personally, I have had my fill of cloud computing for a while. Depending on who you ask, it's either great or it's terrible, it's either the biggest IT innovation since the PC or it's an elaborate ruse designed to both take your money and leave you and your data as vulnerable as a newborn. As I've stated on numerous occasions, the truth -- presently and in the real world -- resides somewhere in the middle."

I also like this snippet (from the same post), which, whether he meant it that way or not, is a great summary of the State of the Cloud, which seems to still be holding true at the moment: "Long story short: I'm tired of writing about cloud computing every week (I really am), but I cannot stand to see the propagation of misconceptions without at least voicing a rational opinion in the name of clarification. Enterprise-wise, cloud computing is not ready for primetime just yet, but there are plenty of reasons that make it an attractive option, with production-ready in-house versions being a near-term reality. In the meantime, big companies will use it for testing purposes, small companies might use it for real, and the cloud providers will continue to hone their offerings." Three cheers for rational discourse.

With that, here's the first part of my interview with Derrick:

Jay Fry, Data Center Dialog: From your time as managing editor at GRIDtoday and then as it became On-Demand Enterprise, you've had a chance to watch (and bring attention to) the rise of cloud computing. What convinced you that this "cloud" stuff was going to be something worth covering and something impactful?

Derrick Harris: I think what most convinced me that cloud computing is worth covering is how it parallels -- and then blows away -- the value propositions touted by grid vendors a few years ago. When I first started at GRIDtoday, there was much talk about capacity on demand, utility-style access, etc., as they related to grid computing, but the reality was that these capabilities only benefited certain application types, and then only grid-enabled applications. As cloud computing (both internal and external) started to take shape, this capacity-on-demand value prop was expanded to reach many more applications, flexibility was increased, and, generally, far less work and infrastructural change was required to take advantage of these benefits.

DCD: How important do you think cloud computing is going to be? What sort of impact do you think it will have on enterprises?

Derrick Harris: I think it's going to be very important, eventually becoming all but ubiquitous -- there are just too many cost savings and competitive advantages to be had by moving certain operations to the cloud. (That said, I'm not about to venture a guess as to when this ubiquity will be reality.) As far impact goes, I think Werner Vogels says it best when he talks about eliminating "undifferentiated heavy lifting" and focusing human and financial resources on a company's strengths. That could mean unprecedented levels of productivity.

DCD: What are some of the most interesting/compelling components of what's going on in the cloud space right now? What’s headed in the right direction?

Derrick Harris: I think one of the dead-on trends right now (and not just because I'm talking to someone from Cassatt) is the incorporation of policy-based power management into internal cloud offerings. This really melds the on-demand, hands-free promise of cloud computing with the harsh realities that companies need to save money wherever they can and, in some areas, additional power is tough to come by. It also allows internal vendors to compete with external providers on the cost-savings and green fronts. The increased availability of external clouds supporting Windows would seem to be a big deal, as well.

DCD: What's headed toward a dead-end?

Derrick Harris: I think it's too early to call anything a dead end just yet, as most offerings are in their early stages, but I do think large vendors need to be wary of building their external cloud platforms too cumbersome and/or too proprietary. It is the simplicity and openness of cloud computing that are so compelling.

DCD: What's the most surprising trend, innovation, or happening that you’ve seen recently?

Derrick Harris: I don't know that it's surprising, but I am very intrigued by the notion of using humans as cloud resources. Amazon Web Services' Mechanical Turk probably is the most prominent example of this, but I've also seen it in the QA testing area with uTest. Cloud computing is all about evolving how we compute, so I always am interested when I see unique ways of defining "computing."

DCD: Any predictions you'd care to make for 2009 or cloud computing or enterprise IT in general?

Derrick Harris: Not really, other than that I think the table has been set for 2009 to be a big year for cloud players – particularly when it comes to attracting enterprise users. Most everyone has put their stake in the ground, some have really solidified their offerings, and there is plenty of user interest.

DCD: What effect do you think this lovely economy will have on the adoption of cloud computing? I've heard comments both ways.

Derrick Harris: Well, vendors and some analysts have said cloud computing will be a savior of IT budgets in this nightmarish economy. Logically, this forecast makes a lot of sense, and companies willing to give cloud a try could reap substantial rewards. However, I think the reality might be that many organizations will see the economy as another reason to naysay cloud computing, feeling that failure could be fatal so it's better to just maintain the status quo. I don't mean to skirt around the question, but I just think it's too early to tell.

If there is a surefire bright spot, it is start-ups. Innovation certainly hasn't died, and with credit and funding becoming scarce, cloud computing will continue to be a great way for start-ups (particularly Web-based start-ups) to keep their IT costs manageable so they can grow the end product. Success stories already are piling up.

Next time: More from Derrick on the perils of being a high-tech journalist in this economy.

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