An argument for “active cloud management”

There is no reason for businesses to be afraid of the Cloud but it doesn't need to become an uncontrolled experiment either.

It has become axiomatic that whenever a disruptive technology comes along, the collective response is to over react.  The over-reaction seems go like this: stage 1, the disruptive technology, whether it’s refrigeration, the automobile or cloud computing (the subject of this piece), is niche and will change absolutely nothing; stage 2, the technology is universal and will change absolutely everything.

I think when it comes to the Cloud, it’s safe to say that we are currently in stage two of this reaction.  Wherever you turn, enthusiasm for the incredible efficiencies, potential uses and profound cost-benefits of the Cloud is evident.  This is completely understandable.  After all, we are now living in a world where the approximate cost per megabyte of computer memory has dropped from $US38.6 million in 1960 to about one US cent (in terms of Australian currency, we don’t even have coinage small enough to pay for a single meg now).  According to one leading analyst, the public cloud represents one of the fastest growing market opportunities in history with the number of virtual machines (VMs) in IaaS (Infrastructure as a Service) solutions projected to grow at stunning compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of as much as 80 per cent over the next two years.

The reason for this explosive uptake is obvious. The Cloud has married the bargain-basement cost of processing speed and storage to the ubiquity of low latency internet.  As a result, we face a shocking game changer: the world is now the computer and we’re all just living in it. 

In other words, no more fusty old data centres and expensive enterprise purchases, no more mystifying networks to administer, et cetera.  We’re all pretty familiar with the new vision now: a world of seamless integration and access no matter what device you are using, no matter where you are, no matter how big or small your company is, and, most important of all especially for the technophobic, a world free from the tyranny of the IT professional – let’s face it, this is the triumphant note struck by most of those BYOD-versus-the-unreasonable-tech-department stories.

And it’s exactly at this point — when a new utopia of headache-free tech seems upon us — that we need to stop and recognise the third stage in the response to disruptive technology: balance.

A balanced reaction recognises that while the technology is truly disruptive and things won’t ever be the same again, many of the same protocols and issues that the old order addressed still matter and we need to recognise this and adapt where appropriate. 

For example, the Cloud will likely remain unmatched for short-term, Big Data bursting projects.  But what about when you want to store the extremely valuable, proprietary results that come from that project – where does that data go?  Or you are working with a finance client and you need to conform with US regulation like Sarbanes-Oxley?  Or another client who has extremely strict confidentiality requirements?  Do you really want to take risks with off-shore cloud storage and data sovereignty pitfalls?  It may look inexpensive, but did you know that the US Patriot Act means that your data may be searched and even seized without an ISP or cloud data storage provider being permitted to inform you.  The data centre doesn’t even need to be offshore for this to happen.  If the owner of the data centre is US-flagged then the Patriot Act still applies even if the centre is in Wagga Wagga. 

It’s also worth thinking about how your data is being used and what access you are providing to your networks with IaaS solutions and the stability of the platforms.  Can you afford an outage?  Just last week, Amazon, one of the largest providers of cloud, had a massive blackout that saw Pinterest, Reddit and others go dark and those were just the user-fronting players.   Or a Megaupload-style takedown (where all data, much of it legitimate and business-related by the way, was deleted when the FBI shut down the site under the Millennium Copyright Act)? 

Spreading your assets

One strategy is to spread your assets across the Cloud, among a number of different cloud providers. This is good for the threat of breaches and system outages, but might not address data sovereignty – even with true-blue Australian data centre, you’ll need to make sure your provider indemnifies you for any expenses that come from challenging disputed collection of data.   

Hybrid cloud, the concept of maintaining some on-premise data centre capacity, is another strategy that will likely gain traction as companies seek ways to mitigate their risks while taking advantage of the cost and efficiencies of the Cloud.

Ultimately, the Cloud isn’t a cloud at all. It’s more like an iceberg with 10 per cent above water and 90 per cent beneath. That 90 per cent below the waves isn’t all bad (though some of it, like the unfathomable costs from a data sovereignty problem, certainly is). What the 90 per cent represents is something that for better or worse demands strategic implementation and active management.  

Each organisation needs to plan its cloud use with the same attention to detail as if it were building a physical data centre. And when that structure is in place, whether it spans the globe or is a two-way street with reverse cloud backups or the occasional cloud bursts, the active management begins.  Yes, the Cloud means more opex than capex – but opex doesn’t mean outsourcing vigilance and system responsiveness just because IT has become a monthly invoice instead of a server humming down the hall.   

There is no reason for a business to be afraid of the Cloud.  Likewise, there is no reason to let the Cloud become an uncontrolled experiment.  Manage it actively and this disruptive technology will only be disruptive in the best possible sense. 

Tristan Goode is the only Australian director on the OpenStack Foundation Board and the CEO and founder of cloud solutions provider Aptira.

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