Don't be fooled: Cloud computing is not so simple

Beware oversimplifications such as 'the cloud is like the electric grid' -- they're destined to make you fail

I enjoyed James Urquhart's post, "In cloud computing, data is not electricity," which points out some of the sillier analogies we're seeing in the emerging cloud computing space. Specifically, Urquhart refers to Nick Carr's classic vision of cloud computing, "The Big Switch," which compares traditional on-premise computing as generating your own power to cloud computing as using the standard power grid.

"However, some have taken electricity as an analogy to cloud adoption to an extreme, and declared that there will be a massive and sudden shift from corporate datacenters to entirely external cloud computing environments -- public cloud utilities, if you will. They are wrong," Urquhart writes.

Hear, hear.

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I've seen this analogy in dozens of cloud computing service provider presentations, explaining to the layman that cloud computing is a public utility, and through economies of scale can provide more efficient access to computing resources (as if it were electricity) at a reduced cost. However, if you think cloud computing is that simple, you're bound to fail. Indeed, the movement to the cloud is much more complex than the simplistic analogies the advocates are pushing at us these days.

The fact is that moving to cloud computing is really a complex enterprise architecture exercise, accessing existing on-premise systems and looking for business and technology reasons, if they exist, to move data, services, and processes to cloud computing platforms as it makes sense for the business. This means we have to understand all enterprise IT assets at a fully decomposed level, then recast portions of them into the cloud with a complete understanding of the benefits -- and the risks. Data, services, and processes are not electricity.

"Over time, I do actually believe that much of enterprise computing will find its way out of corporate datacenters, and into the cloud. However, I also believe that such migration will take place over several decades, and that there are tremendous hurdles yet to be overcome to get us there," Urquhart writes.

He's right. The hurdles that I see are more around knowledge at this point. Although we think we understand the advantages of cloud computing, we've yet to understand cloud computing in the context of existing enterprise IT. The reality is that although cloud computing appears new and sexy, at the end of the day it is just another way to host data, services, and processes. There are no magical methods to push our IT assets out of the firewall, and there is a lot of work needed to get there. While some will gain some short-term benefits from moving to the cloud in 2009 and 2010, the long-term vision of cloud computing will indeed take years.

I do, however, believe it's well worth the journey. If you look at the average enterprise, you'll see a huge dysfunctional mess as layers upon layers of hardware and software has drifted into the enterprise over the years. Cloud computing is not a magic bullet. But like becoming better organized as you move from an old house to a new one, the movement to cloud computing provides an opportunity to improve, becoming more effective with fewer resources.

It's time to retire those "electric company" slides. It's just not that simple.

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