Clouding Over

Apr 13, 2009

I participated in a demo with an enterprise social software vendor not too long ago in which the vendor explained some new functionality it was adding to its tool. The functionality would allow licensees to support file sharing with external partners. This idea could prove to be a bit tricky because the product in question is fundamentally an intranet platform that runs behind the firewall. So the vendor set up its own file-sharing service for its customers to use with external collaborators.

That immediately set off a string of questions in my head, the first out of my mouth being, "Where do all those docs get stored?"

"The cloud," Mr. Vendor responded smartly.

That answer was unsatisfying, particularly since, after digging deeper, it turns out that this particular cloud consisted of the vendor storing those documents in its own less-than-stratospheric data center.

Yet the cloud answer seems to be manna to most analysts, investors, and vendors these days. As my colleague Alan Pelz-Sharpe writes, "It’s a great term, ‘Cloud Computing,’ since it conjures up visions of an invisible internet—an ether-like zone in the sky where computing power and storage is unfettered by the petty restrictions of boxes, cables, and technicians. Cloud computing sounds fluffy, it sounds cool, it sounds limitless, it sounds like the future."

Of course, Google, IBM, Amazon, and some others can lay legitimate claim to cloud-computing capabilities. And surely we are just beginning to see the potential value to superdistributed and redundant storage and processing. There are many anecdotes of the value of cloud computing for one-off processing tasks or on an ongoing basis for true commodity services, such as email.

Just remember that when you need to customize an application in the least, it’s no longer a commodity. And cloud does not mean fail-safe. Google has had some occasional outages in its vaunted web analytics service, just like some of its more prosaic competitors. Also, if the cloud is your answer to an inability to properly vet and delete aging documents, then you are just postponing your day of information reckoning—no matter how much cheap storage you find online.

Today, many content management vendors are getting "partly cloudy." For example, Interwoven and Oracle have purchased hosted functionality to supplement their traditional content management and portal applications, respectively. Microsoft has announced a hosted SharePoint service.

Of course, there is a real difference between these sorts of hosted or SaaS solutions and real cloud computing. A SaaS vendor may not necessarily utilize highly distributed computing, and a "cloud" service such as Amazon’s S3 may not provide a specific, packaged application. That hasn’t stopped vendors of all stripes—such as the one I mentioned previously—from bandying their "cloud strategies" about to uncritical analysts and customers.

Be particularly wary of those cases in which "cloud" just means a one-off instance of a tool, running on someone else’s servers. As a buyer you should understand that contracting with a supplier simply to host and customize traditional software is not the same thing as working with a well-thought-through, "native" SaaS solution that was built from the ground up by a company dedicated to providing such a service. Nor is it the same thing as distributing storage and processing power around to a broader infrastructure lattice.

Moreover, you the customer should understand that there is a big difference between a vendor supporting its traditional software products and supporting an operational service. I find some vendors underestimate what it takes to run a 24/7 service. They assume they can just load up their beloved software in a nice controlled environment and assign some support people on it. It rarely turns out quite that way, which means this particular cloud could deliver some rainy days for you.

In the end, you need to judge cloud-based services—as well as simpler, more one-dimensional SaaS providers—by the same criteria that you would evaluate any other information technology. Big topics in my book include Reliability, Availability, Restorability, Customizability, Security, Performance, Total Cost of Ownership, and the all-too-intangible quality of Human Support. There’s a good chance that someone else’s data centers are better than yours in many circumstances—but not all.

In the meantime, get clear about what "the cloud" actually gives you. Done right, cloud-based services can offer a kind of horizon-stretching expansiveness in computing that you couldn’t achieve in other ways. Clouds can be opaque too. Vendor-marketing people can afford to get lost in the clouds. You can’t.

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