Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Clouds. What Clouds?

When you live in Vancouver, talking about clouds means you are talking about the likelihood that "liquid sunshine" is forecast or actually happening. On last Sunday - Monday we had during 24 hours more than half of the average rainfall of November, together with December the wettest month in the year. But I digress. This is about clouds in the IT world.

Today someone asked me "Do you have Mobile Me from Mac giving you a cloud? If so, how do you like it? I think it sounds fantastic." Knowing the person is curious about technology concepts I focused on answering the second part of the first question (there are actually three questions here). My answer was:

Yes, we IT people use real world terms for concepts we create in technology. Including "cloud".
Recently people started to wonder if the word "cloud" is a good term, in particular considering the marketing impact on people less familiar with IT concepts.

The concept is that you are provided a service, but you can't really tell which physical equipment is actually being used for the service, as it changes dynamically based a whole bunch of factors that aren't of concern to the end user. At least that is what the provider(s) envisions like the utility providing you electricity. You also are not concerned which power plant produced it. Now some end-users (in particular enterprises) feel it is a concern, because of the data involved. They want to know where it is, if it is properly protected and so on.

Well, I didn't answer her question. She wanted to know if I thought Mobile Me is great. Silly me!!

To be honest: I don't know. While I am a convinced Apple user, the description of Mobile Me is too cloudy for me. What do you get for your annual subscription fee? Synchronisation between your Macs and iPhones? Disk space on the internet? I find the information on to much marketing and not enough service description. I would think most service buyers in enterprises want to know what they are getting into when buying cloud services.

To find an answer to what "clouds" bring for the enterprise I tried to find out who coined the term "cloud", and what is the generally understood and accepted definition of the term "cloud" in the IT world. I am not having much success, so if someone can enlighten me, feel free to comment. My friend with the Mobile Me question is also reading this. Be warned.

For many people not familiar with networking or internet working, clouds seems to be the "stuff" you buy from your network services providers. And there is a good reason why these providers want to maintain this cloud as what you are buying is really cloudy. I can't count the number of times I asked providers to supply me with the physical diagrams of the solution proposed to my clients. The providers are not prepared to answer the question. Some push back includes: do you ask your electricity provider for the diagrams of the nuclear power plant? No, but in modern countries independent bodies have been established to guarantee that you will get your electricity at the specified voltage, amperage and frequency whenever you want it. Having worked for such a utility I can promise you this is not easy to accomplish.

Lately more service providers want to provide you the ability to run your applications and to host your data. They often also use the term cloud. Smart move? Considering there is still a lot debate on how reliable and secure the internet service is, I would say not. Some providers realize that and prefer SaaS (Software as a Service). Business wise this makes a lot of sense as you can now demand to pay for actual usage instead of making upfront investments for hardware and software licenses. And let us not forget the often hefty annual maintenance.

So far we are still stuck with the cloud. Some pundits claim it is the future and a nail in the coffin of the personal computer. Microsoft would be in trouble. But those folks in Redmond are familiar dealing with rain. I mean real rain, just like in Vancouver. Like the weather, the future cannot be forecasted.

© Peter Bodifée 2009. All rights reserved.