Work, Learn, Play

Forecast: Cloudy, Chance of Rain

In 1965 Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones wrote Get Off of My Cloud, a rant against the buttoned down pre-hippy status quo of the mid-60s—the cloud in the title being of course that heavenly fluff on which Mick and Keith (mostly Keith) pined to float away to a bright new, sunshiny day.

Given that the Stones’ next hit single was As Tears Go By, Keith’s fluffy cloud must have turned black and poured down rain.

Forty-five years later (am I really that old?) the internet cloud is all the rage among mainstream IT companies, sector analysts and even retailers like Amazon. It’s the newest new new thing and we’re all supposed to get excited. But somehow I’m not.

First, there doesn’t seem to be much agreement on what the cloud actually is. IBM is touting (among many other things) IBM Cloudburst 1.2—a kind of cloudlet package that lets you do things like “simplify virtual machine mobility” and “enable chargeback for cloud services to optimize system usage.” The idea, I think, is to sell you some IBM hardware along with preconfigured IBM software applications and let you make your own cloud stories.

Amazon is touting the Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2), a “simple web service interface [that] allows you to obtain and configure capacity with minimal friction” (I swear I’m not making this stuff up). If I understand the pitch, Amazon is offering virtualized, i.e., shared, low initial cost data centre services to the masses, or at least to those of us with access to credit cards.

A third kind of cloud company is all about the delivery of software applications to your desktop on a per-use or per-unit-of-time rental basis. This way you don’t have to buy that expensive piece of software you covet; you can just rent it by the hour.

So, the cloud could mean:

  1. Bundled hardware/software server packages for your data center
  2. Some combination of the above delivered on demand (you can even rent an entire data center in a box—some companies will now sell you a 40-foot cloud shipping container you just wheel somewhere and plug in)
  3. Non-persistent Internet access abstracted, virtualized and sold in tiny time chunks like phone calls (this is the retail play)
  4. Software applications rented by the hour or the day (with no virtualized infrastructure anywhere in sight)
  5. Or even plain vanilla data center services with a bit of burst-on-demand pipeline capacity thrown in

The cloud is, as terms go, vague enough to lend itself to just about any meaning someone decides to promote. This is in fact the beauty of clouds. They keep changing shape.

Jim Louderback recently wrote a piece on Mark Anderson’s recent predictions (Mark Anderson is the respected pundit from Strategic News Service). The piece is called 2010: Cloud Collapse, Platform Wars and Microsoft Loses All! Despite the title it’s worth a read. Anderson’s point about clouds—they may well work for people but not for companies—strikes me as right. And I agree with his prediction; At least one major company or government agency is likely to suffer through a huge data loss scandal this year or next after some bright spark in IT decides to upload legally protected personal data to a shared cloud because, well, s/he thinks it’s cool and, hey, everybody else is doing it.

Bottom line? Old school hosted services are fine. Just make sure your service providers are ISO 27001 certified, understand global data privacy protection requirements for data processors, maintain adequate insurance coverage and are willing to put it all in writing for you. Otherwise, get off of that cloud.

“I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now,
From up and down and still somehow
It’s clouds’ illusions I recall.
I really don’t know clouds at all.”

From Both Sides Now—Neil Diamond