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Politics, (computing) power and money in IT and the cloud

IT pros observe the shift in IT culture with the advance of cloud computing. Fiscal pressure and end-user demand will change their world.

BOSTON -- The unmistakable results from the shift to cloud computing were evident at a cloud computing conference here this week. Though IT pros had different problems and different solutions, all saw swift-moving, deep changes to IT as we know it.

Cloud is not something you do on a weekend. It is a transition of many, many years.

Brian Butte, director of cloud computing, PricewaterhouseCoopers

At the Cloud Control conference, IT pros said many of the changes revolve around management and day-to-day operations. No matter what the goal of the organization is, everyone sees the potential in how cloud-style operations work.

Ray O'Brien, CTO of the NASA Ames Research Center, helped shepherd NASA's internal cloud project, Nebula, into being; the storage component went on to be a central part of the OpenStack project. O’Brien said that one of the drivers for getting a cloud in place at NASA was to find out what was actually happening in its very large IT organization.

"We have to account to the [Office of Management and Budget] for everything," he said, but it turned out NASA often couldn't do that.

O'Brien said the general mode of project development at NASA was a many-headed hydra, with hardware (and budget) going in several different directions and every team and division accounting in its own way. Project leads had much discretion over infrastructure choices, said O'Brien, and this generally led to a situation where, despite massive sums of money being spent, it was hard to have a full and true picture of what went where. "NASA is a very decentralized place on development." he said.

James Cuff, director of research computing at Harvard University, echoed O'Brien's sentiments, stating that control over resources has slipped away from IT staff. This is especially true in academia, he said, where cloud infrastructure services like Amazon Web Services (AWS) were just too easy and too economical for end users to ignore. End users circumvent IT more and more, making the normal state of disarray in running a lot of infrastructure even more chaotic.

"The bottom line is we've got to get out of the bare-metal business," Cuff said. While commodity hardware was getting even cheaper, and he has reasons to own some infrastructure -- for a lot of needs -- cloud infrastructure could be made functionally identical to the HPC systems his users needed. There was a single, over-arching reason that -- no matter how he felt about it -- clouds were going to win. "17 cents a kilowatt hour," he added.

Just the electricity needed to power Cuff’s systems costs more than a large swath of the AWS product line. Add to that the fact that AWS is arguably better at running massive computing grids at scale than Harvard, and Cuff said the shift was inevitable.

The anti-infrastructure agenda
In the enterprise, that inescapable logic is coming down the pike; in many cases it already has, said PricewaterhouseCoopers' director of cloud computing Brian Butte, who warned that the seemingly organic creep of Software as a Service into every part of the enterprise was a foreshadowing of what would happen on the infrastructure side.

Butte said a cloud services and cloud-style infrastructure is finally presenting a recognizable trend to the people with the purse strings, and that’s driving the shift from traditional IT departments. "The biggest driver you find is the [Chief Financial Officer]," he said.

But the CFO doesn't want to own anything, Butte said, least of all infrastructure. Companies rarely own their own buildings, or even their furniture; it's all contracted out to service organizations that can do a better, cheaper job. Now that it has become clear that IT can operate in a similar fashion, there will be more push to get away running data centers in favor of more colocation, more managed services and so on.

The CFO doesn't want to own anything, least of all infrastructure.

Brian Butte

"They've all seen the Microsoft ads, 'Oh, just stick it in the cloud,'" Butte said.

Butte said a great deal of the problem is that cloud computing was not really about IT; it was about re-imagining the entire organization to make every process -- aided and abetted by IT -- more automated, more consumable and more streamlined. "It's HR, it’s financial, it’s everything," he said. "Everything is going to be touched by cloud."

Of course, that's not going to be easy, nor will the transition happen quickly. Lots of enterprise have what Butte called a 'legacy tax' of line of business applications that may be very old, very important, very difficult to change or all three. He said there just wasn't anything to be dropped into place, and the best way to think about cloud computing was one small, achievable step at a time.

 "Cloud is not something you do on a weekend. You're not going to be cloud-enabled in one project, or a dozen projects,” he said. “It is a transition of many, many years."

Carl Brooks is the Senior Technology Writer for Contact him at

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