Alas, Poor Cloud, We Knew It Well
Alas, poor Cloud! I knew it, Horatio. A fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! (With apologies to William Shakespeare) My understanding of cloud computing wasn’t shaped by vendor marketing departments and interest groups. The NIST Definition of Cloud Computing was unknown to me; what I was hearing about Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) seemed reminiscent of the ASP hype that existed around the time of the last Internet bubble. For some time, I hadn’t even heard of Amazon Web Services. Many called me a cloud skeptic. In the fall of 2008, I attended a CIO briefing. One of the topics was the newly announced Windows Azure preview. After the presentation was finished, I recall thinking “So?” (I thought this rather than voicing it, because at the time I was a Microsoft employee and to do such would have been rude.) That was the last I thought about Windows Azure for quite some time. This also speaks volumes about Microsoft’s early challenges with cloud messaging. A year later, I was given an opportunity to interview for a role on the nascent Azure sales team. It was in the prep for the meeting where my eyes opened to the promise of cloud computing, thanks in large part to two whitepapers by David Chappell titled “Introduction to Cloud Platforms” and “Introducing the Azure Services Platform.” It was clear that this approach to computing would reawaken the “cottage industry” sparked by the IBM PC in the 80s. The passion sparked by the realization propelled me into the job. (A brief note: Before my views are dismissed as “drinking the Microsoft Kool-Aid,” please keep in mind that Microsoft did not have any cloud Kool-Aid to drink until 2010. I was on my own when it came to assessing the full potential of cloud technology.) Having secured a job with an explicit charter of “figure out how to sell this stuff,” I got down to the hard work of determining the best way to tell the story. Research led to the “NIST Definition of Cloud Computing,” which was becoming generally accepted—with the exception of marketing departments, which had clear reasons to dismiss it. At the time, Windows Azure was a near-perfect implementation of what NIST called Platform as a Service (PaaS). According to the NIST definition, there’s no difference between PaaS and Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) models, at least from an application architecture perspective. Whereas the original forays into service-oriented computing were an all-or-nothing proposition, cloud computing—including IaaS—allows for more conservative adopters to sign on without a radical change in how they do business. While this means less risk from a resources standpoint, there’s also the downside that adopting a cloud platform will translate into minimum business value. The current cloud wave is a mix of Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) and IaaS. While SaaS is a novel way to consume off-the-shelf software, IaaS has been reduced to self-service hosting of virtual machines. Despite the hype surrounding “the cloud,” the promise of PaaS/IaaS as deployment models for service-oriented applications remains largely untapped. And while PaaS is finally garnering analyst attention, it’s unclear whether most organizations understand the importance of adopting a service-oriented mindset. Which brings us to the tortured quote from Hamlet. The promise of cloud computing seems to have dimmed, its true value untapped. However, unlike “poor Yorick,” it does not have a set destiny that ends with, “How abhorred in my imagination it is.” IaaS can be returned to its original strong function. PaaS can take its place center-stage with IaaS and SaaS in key supporting roles. The durable economic benefits of cloud computing can be realized to the fullest—if people are willing to make that happen.
Mark Eisenberg is the Director of Business Development for Fino Consulting, a technology consulting firm, which provides cloud and mobile application development for the enterprise.