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Smaller cloud success stories found in shadows of Netflix, Facebook

When asked about cloud success stories, most IT pros point to Netflix. But daily cloud wins from smaller companies may mean more in the long term.

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You've heard about the cloud home runs, but the real wins are happening quietly.

There are a number of stories out there about organizations that have made a big jump into the cloud. Private or public, these organizations are often trotted out as shining examples of successful cloud implementations. Their stories have become legendary in IT, especially among IT leaders who want to change the way they do business. Like any legends, though, there's the grand story and then there's what actually happened.

To find examples of these legendary cloud deployments, I did a Web search for "companies that have moved to the cloud." I found a few articles with lists of companies that have adopted cloud computing. First on four of the lists is Netflix. Netflix is everybody's cloud success story, sure, but it grew up in the cloud, having built its very custom applications around the way cloud works. Does my enterprise have applications that even resemble those of Netflix? No. Will we ever have applications that resemble Netflix? Probably not.

Next on the lists are companies like Pinterest and Instagram. Again, they have custom applications that were purpose-built to work in the cloud. As startups, these businesses didn't have physical space or capital to invest in physical servers, so they used the cloud to grow as they needed. That's quite a different problem set than the one faced by most businesses.

Further down some of the lists are companies such as Apple and Facebook. While it's true they operate their data centers in many cloud-like ways, these companies have gone the opposite direction from most businesses considering the cloud. Both Apple and Facebook built their own massive data centers, in places like Maiden, North Carolina and Prineville, Oregon. Why? Because at their scale, it's cheaper to do it that way than rent from Amazon, Microsoft or Google, and in all those cases they'd be renting from their direct competitors, which is a big risk. Apple and Facebook shouldn't be on these lists. They are not the examples we're looking for.

So where are the good examples? Underneath every myth, there's a kernel of truth. As it turns out, buried in these lists are companies that have actually done specific projects in the cloud. Xerox used public cloud services to deliver a new customer-facing service. Publishers Clearing House redid pch.com and saved money by using cloud techniques such as autoscaling and cloud bursting. Revlon uses private cloud methodologies to streamline its internal application deployments.

These are exactly the examples we need, not the grandiose "We moved everything to the public cloud" stories. Those stories are unrealistic for most companies, and they make me wonder why anyone would do that. Was their IT so bad that it couldn't get any worse by moving wholesale to a public cloud? Or maybe they're just small enough that it didn't matter.

My point is simple: Most of the common examples of cloud successes have absolutely nothing in common with the typical enterprise, but that shouldn't discourage us. If the cloud is a baseball game, the path to success is almost never a series of home runs. It's mostly small ball, methodically getting on base and advancing the runners until people start scoring. It isn't flashy like a home run, but it works way more often. In truth, there are thousands of quiet wins being made every day using clouds or cloud-like techniques among companies that we never hear about. Some put proofs of concept up in the cloud but bring the production services back in-house. Some put new projects entirely in the cloud, especially those that have little interaction with legacy systems.

Start small, get on base, then repeat. Set your in-house virtual server sizes to match Amazon Web Services instances, for example. Then start deploying new operating systems with a configuration management tool such as Puppet or Chef. Start deploying new applications with those same tools. Then get your provisioning process to do the deployments automatically. Begin proof-of-concept deployments into a public cloud provider, using those same techniques. Then start doing production deployments.

See? Before you know it, you too will be "in the cloud."

About the author
Bob Plankers is a virtualization and cloud architect at a major Midwestern university. He is also the author of The Lone Sysadmin blog.

This was first published in July 2014

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