The Cloud – What is it and Who Cares?

There's an old joke in IT that goes like this:
"What's the difference between a car salesman and an IT salesman?"

The punchline is:
"The car salesman knows when he's lying."

Change IT to "Cloud" and you have a new twist on an old joke.
Unfortunately, the joke is on you, the customer.

I've been thinking lately about how abused, misused and confused the term "The Cloud" has become recently. As a cloud services provider, I get a ton of spam from vendors who want me to offer their products and services. I recently heard from a vendor of a micro server that plugs into a wall outlet and lets you connect a USB hard drive, creating a small storage server from a device the size of a standard wall wart.

While the small form factor may be interesting for cost reasons, the main benefit touted by the vendor of this product, is that your USB drive becomes "cloud storage" accessible securely from anywhere. As a cloud architect, I may be a tad snobbish on what does and doesn't constitute "cloud storage". But just because you hang a cheap and fragile USB drive off a $199 power brick sized server that you can access from the Internet - DOESN'T MEAN IT'S CLOUD STORAGE!!!

It's hype like this that convinced me that most people don't have the foggiest notion of what  "The Cloud" really is.

I believe "The Cloud" is not really an IT term, it’s a marketing term - and it's a poor one at that.. not just an IT term poorly marketed. I evangelize cloud services for a living and I'm amazed that my industry speaks in acronyms, but it can't deliver a concise 60 second pitch on what the cloud is, what business problem it solves, specifically for whom, and how to buy it and leverage the benefit. The end user and business community has a poor understanding of what the cloud is today - and the industry has done very little to cut through the noise.

Such poor understanding breeds confusion - which breeds mistrust - which breeds inaction. Real prospects end up sitting on the sidelines waiting for a simple explanation of the rules of the game by someone who doesn't make them feel stupid.

To get beyond the alphabet soup of acronymity, I tell clients to just think of the cloud as 21st century time sharing, with systems and resources more powerful and reliable than any mainframe of the past. Whether they need a development server, a Disaster Recovery target or an production application server, those old enough to remember the 70's & 80’s get it instantly, without me explaining PaaS, IaaS or SaaS or feeding them alphabet soup.

Our younger clients ask a variant of the question "isn't the cloud just another term for Internet hosting"? My answer is "sort of, except on steroids". I hosted web servers for 15 years before starting Virtual Density to focus on "the cloud". The main difference between hosting in the traditional sense and today's cloud services, is that hosting is still mostly done using inexpensive dedicated servers with direct attached storage. So hosting providers may seem like cloud resources when marketed to a unsuspecting buyer who doesn't know better. But each of those servers is a low-availability point of risk and a show stopper when they go down.

By my definition, true cloud resources must be elastic, resilient and designed for 100% uptime. While we can quibble about uptime stats and what constitutes system availability  some other time, the overarching design goal is resilience, fault tolerance and high availability. That of course requires virtualization, but virtualization done right. Not just some VM's spread on a dedicated hosting server.

Doing it right requires scalable infrastructure to support elasticity and spot demand. This means VM's properly clustered using VMotion or an equivalent migration component, with load balancing, resource shifting, RAID or dispersal-based storage on SAN, preferably replicated across redundant stacks in multiple, geographically separated data centers.

True cloud computing puts the greatest point of failure at the user's end of the Internet connection. And it delivers platforms, development environments, storage or software 24/7/365 with little margin for error, excuse or apology other than what happens at the OS or application layer. Bad apps will be bad apps, whether they're run on internal servers, dedicated internet servers or the cloud. But a "real cloud" provider should be able to deliver access to that bad app reliably, unless the customer's broadband fails.

People generally don't care if the power that lights their office was generated with coal, natural gas or nuclear energy. Cloud computing will have truly arrived when apps and storage "show up" on the endpoint as a utility, rented without capex, and without regard for where the app is hosted or a thought about reliability. Done right, it's 21st century time sharing on steroids. If you'd like to discuss how to leverage Cloud technology or virtualization in your business, contact our CTO Chris Furey for a personal consultation.


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