Migrating to the cloud means more work than you think

Moving applications to the cloud requires designing for the cloud, not following familiar paths to greater inefficiencies

Taking advantage of the cloud -- IaaS and PaaS, in particular -- requires a lot more work than most IT departments realize. And before you roll your eyes at yet another column about the cloud, it gets worse: I'm going to do something we geezers in training do a lot of. That is, I'm going to explain that the young whippersnappers who think they know it all need to learn from our experience.

No, not because we already did it all on mainframes with Cobol -- we didn't -- but because of two very different lessons we learned in two contexts that had nothing directly to do with business applications. One is designing for manufacturability; the other is about cow paths.

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Follow me along two cloud migration parables, the first of which takes us back to the early days of the personal computer (he geezed) and the second of which puts us in a woodland where everything we thought was simple about migrating to the cloud is, in fact, surrounded by cow pies.

Cloud migration parable No. 1: A printer's tale

Back in the 1980s, IBM attempted to capture some of the low-end dot-matrix printer market with the IBM ProPrinter. As part of its attempt to keep the price down, so the story goes, IBM wanted the printer built robotically. It called in the robotics experts, who looked at its design and explained it couldn't be done. The printer was too complicated for robots to assemble.

In response, IBM sent its engineers back to the drawing board (or probably the drawing CAD) to redesign the ProPrinter for robotic assembly. The result was a much simpler and more modular machine. In fact, it was so much simpler and more modular that the cost savings from having robots assemble it vanished.

Cloud migration parable No. 2: Cow paths

The second lesson we learned with important cloud parallels happened when we discovered that a piece of conventional wisdom about designing information systems was out-and-out wrong. The conventional wisdom: For IT to automate a process, the business first had to have a good process to automate.

It sounded convincing -- so much so that its proponents never stopped to think that when someone figures out a process, it's in the context of the technology used to implement it. If that technology is limited to ledger sheets, copiers, calculators, and interoffice mail ...

It's called "paving the cow path" because when cows wander around in the woods they wear down the underbrush to create a path. It's not a very efficient path because cows don't care about efficiency. They care about eating stuff.

Nonetheless, when humans then walk through the same woods, it's a lot easier to follow the cow path than to create their own, so long as they watch their step. But when the time comes to build a road through the woods, paving the cow path will result in a very inefficient avenue.

That's what "paving the cow path" means: missing most of the opportunities for added efficiency because you've used the new technology, but the old thought process -- which is what IT did when it automated pre-existing manual processes.

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