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."

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