Thursday, February 17, 2011

Cloudy Thoughts…

Anyone who has been involved in technology in the last few years has been asked to think about clouds.  Of course, I immediately picture light fluffy pillow-like things that remind me of being a kid and trying to discern recognizable shapes in the clouds overhead on a warm summer day.  Doesn’t everyone?  OK, well… maybe not, but regardless of what you think about cloud there is a good chance your perception might benefit from a little refinement.

Cloud can be both a noun and adjective.  The internet is often referred to as “The Cloud” and functions like a noun, while “cloud architecture” uses cloud as more of an adjective, describing the type of architecture.  Cloud has become a synonym for another term, software as a service (SaaS) in some cases as well.  All of these things can lead to confusion or gaps in perception when having a conversation about this very versatile and potentially helpful architecture.

Cloud architecture basically means an environment that is not dependent upon any single component to function.  The availability is as close to 100% as any system can be.  The definition does not, however, end there.  It also means the environment is scalable in a very rapid way.  You can accommodate rapid growth or expel surplus and this ambiguous and almost organic scalability has become how the architecture has gotten it’s name.  You are computing with a cloud, almost quite literally.  It has no real defined shape and can fill space or be squeezed into a small box.  The advantages for business are quite obvious.  Your cloud can be private, or made part of “The Cloud”, or even shared by multiple tenants.  The services that your cloud provides could be accessed with a browser and/or mobile device, making it behave like the last example of cloud computing I described.

Leveraging applications or services with a web browser and not having to house or support the back-end systems required for that service was call software as a service or SaaS.  This type of delivery often is appealing to users because the same model of rapid growth and reduction in size (and likely cost) that is synonymous with cloud architecture is realized immediately and with every billing cycle.  The idea of moving business systems to “The Cloud” and using them in this commoditized fashion has given IT managers and decision makers a lot to think about.  The costs of leveraging a system that is delivered as a Cloud solution could be very cost effective from an operational stand point, but often comes at the cost of limited extensibility and customization.  The inability to mirror your business processes with the supporting systems can lead to costly wasted efforts or reinventing the processes that make up your business today.

Equally concerning is the exit strategy from Cloud services.  If your business changes dramatically enough, the systems in use today may not make sense any longer.  To migrate from the Cloud solution may be very costly or take so much time that it would seem impossible.

The ultimate message here is not that leveraging cloud technologies is bad or dangerous, but more to be an informed consumer before jumping into the light fluffy stuff.  Be sure the same principals of matching business requirement and planning a system roadmap are applied to selecting Cloud solutions as well.  Understand the benefits and risks of the venture to be sure the best interest of your employees and core business functions are not compromised to just save a few dollars in operating overhead.  The impact to productivity may negate the savings.  The other side of the coin is to also not fill a datacenter with systems that are only being marginally utilized.  Having the flexibility to grow with demands seemingly immediately and having costs always commensurate with usage is extremely agile and appropriate for today’s rapidly changing markets.  Just be sure to know the facts and avoid rain clouds.

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