Published: 04 Jan 2013
The relationship between cloud computing and in-house IT can seem like the one between a rebellious teenager and an exasperated parent: frequently at odds, and not understanding each other.
As the upstart challengers, cloud proponents have aggressively promoted the model as the way forward. There’s nothing wrong with that—there’s no progress against the status quo without strong belief and a willingness to break prevailing assumptions. And it’s working. In the past five years, cloud and virtualization have scored win after win, completely resetting the bar for how flexible, dynamic and efficient IT should be.
But there’s also more than a little “If you’re not with us, you’re against us” cliquishness and “It’s cloud or nothing” bravado. The hyperbole tries to consign owned IT infrastructure—i.e., the vast majority of all IT out there, including most of the virtualized infrastructure enterprises have so successfully deployed—to a legacy computing dustbin. If cloudies had a slogan, it would be “Accept no substitutes!” Any efforts to build the so-called private cloud? Insufficient! Pretenders!
If you want to provoke real derision from the cloudoscenti, suggest that cloud isn’t magic, but rather the natural outcome of virtualization. Or note that the latest generation of owned infrastructure—“everything in one box” products like HP’s CloudSystem or IBM’s PureFlex—have some of the same virtues as cloud.
Then stand safely back: The knives are about to come out. “That utterly misses the point! The whole point is to get away from hosting your own infrastructure!”
And here we come to the crux. What exactly is the point of the past 10 years’ evolution toward virtualized, flexible, networked computing? Is it to improve IT flexibility, economics, service levels and outcomes? Is it to get instant, on-demand access to IT resources? Is it to buy IT on a fine-grained “pay by the sip” or Opex, not Capex, pricing model? Or, finally, is it to get IT out of the infrastructure business entirely?
For many in cloud, it’s this last, most radical notion. Nothing but abdication will do. But it’s not abdication to some magical, idealized cloud, but to real, specific service providers like Amazon Web Services (AWS), GoGrid, Google, Heroku, Rackspace or Verizon. In other words, it’s Internet-era outsourcing to real-world vendors—each of which have their own strengths, and real weaknesses.
There’s definitely a virtue in periodically rethinking what you’re doing and whether you want to keep doing things the same way. Some who historically have had internal IT resources will want to outsource much of that. And new business ventures—especially ones with a strong Web or on-demand aspect—will lean toward cloud back ends. It’s also true that very few enterprises will ever operate at the same immense scale as the largest cloud shops.
But the “everything cloud, all the time” narrative tends to ignore that for many IT shops, job one is improving IT and business outcomes—not getting out of IT infrastructure. It glosses over the reality that today’s owned infrastructure uses technologies and approaches similar to what you find in cloud data centers. And it completely ignores that ownership has clear advantages of its own. For instance, it offers local control, customizability, visibility, auditability, and service and performance levels you can’t often get—much less guarantee—in outsourced IT. If something goes wrong, or you want your IT team to move fast in a particular direction, that’s achievable when the staff reports to you. Cloud providers are often operationally strong, but try calling Amazon or Google and getting them to do something. You do not hold the same reins of control. In the cloud, you’re just another utility customer.
Several years ago, the cloud offered an entirely different class of flexibility from almost all in-house IT. But after years of evolution, on-premises IT strategies and products are converging. They use similar techniques, provide similar benefits, and enjoy some of the same economics. It's not apples versus apples, but for many recipes, you can substitute pears, peaches, blueberries—and sometimes, the dish is better if you do.
Cloudists reject the possibility that their approach can be approximated. But they have pretty clear emotional and business stakes in the outcome, and no desire to be co-opted or diluted. From this vantage point, cloud-in-a-box platforms and public cloud are asymptotically converging, and are rarely an either/or dichotomy. For most enterprises and IT shops, the right approach is “horses for courses”—or, use the best tool for the job. The best outcomes will be achieved on infrastructures that blend what’s good about outsourced networked computing with what’s good about local, under-our-control computing. Say hello to the hybrid cloud.
This article originally appeared in the December/January issue of Modern Infrastructure.