Monday, December 01, 2008

The enterprise "barrier-to-exit" to cloud computing

An interesting discussion ensued on Twitter this weekend between myself and George Reese of Valtira. George--who recently posted some thought provoking posts on O'Reilly Broadcast about cloud security, and is writing a book on cloud computing--argued strongly that the benefits gained from moving to the cloud outweighed any additional costs that may ensue. In fact, in one tweet he noted:

"IT is a barrier to getting things done for most businesses; the Cloud reduces or eliminates that barrier."
I reacted strongly to that statement; I don't buy that IT is that bad in all cases (though some certainly is), nor do I buy that simply eliminating a barrier to getting something done makes it worth while. Besides, the barrier being removed isn't strictly financial, it is corporate IT policy. I can build a kick butt home entertainment system for my house for $50,000; that doesn't mean it's the right thing to do.

However, as the conversation unfolded, it became clear that George and I were coming at the problem from two different angles. George was talking about many SMB organizations, which really can't justify the cost of building their own IT infrastructure, but have been faced with a choice of doing just that, turning to (expensive and often rigid) managed hosting, or putting a server in a colo space somewhere (and maintaining that server). Not very happy choices.

Enter the cloud. Now these same businesses can simply grab capacity on demand, start and stop billing at their leisure and get real world class power, virtualization and networking infrastructure without having to put an ounce of thought into it. Yeah, it costs more than simply running a server would cost, but when you add the infrastructure/managed hosting fees/colo leases, cloud almost always looks like the better deal. At least that's what George claims his numbers show, and I'm willing to accept that. It makes sense to me.

I, on the other hand, was thinking of medium to large enterprises which already own significant data center infrastructure, and already have sunk costs in power, cooling and assorted infrastructure. When looking at this class of business, these sunk costs must be added to server acquisition and operation costs when rationalizing against the costs of gaining the same services from the cloud. In this case, these investments often tip the balance, and it becomes much cheaper to use existing infrastructure (though with some automation) to deliver fixed capacity loads. As I discussed recently, the cloud generally only gets interesting for loads that are not running 24X7.

(George actually notes a class of applications that sadly are also good candidates, though they shouldn't necessarily be: applications that IT just can't or won't get to on behalf of a business unit. George claims his business makes good money meeting the needs of marketing organizations that have this problem. Just make sure the ROI is really worth it before taking this option, however.)

This existing investment in infrastructure therefore acts almost as a "barrier-to-exit" for these enterprises when considering moving to the cloud. It seems to me highly ironic, and perhaps somewhat unique, that certain aspects of the cloud computing market will be blazed not by organizations with multiple data centers and thousands upon thousands of servers, but by the little mom-and-pop shop that used to own a couple of servers in a colo somewhere that finally shut them down and turned to Amazon. How cool is that?

The good news, as I hinted at earlier, is that there is technology that can be rationalized financially--through capital equipment and energy savings--which in turn can "grease the skids" for cloud adoption in the future. Ask the guys at 3tera. They'll tell you that their cloud infrastructure allows an enterprise to optimize infrastructure usage while enabling workload portability (though not running workload portability) between cloud providers running their stuff. VMWare introduced their vCloud initiative specifically to make enterprises aware of the work they are doing to allow workload portability across data centers running their stuff. Cisco (my employer) is addressing the problem. In fact, there are several great products out there who can give you cloud technology in your enterprise data center that will open the door to cloud adoption now (with things like cloudbursting) and in the future.

If you aren't considering how to "cloud enable" your entire infrastructure today, you ought to be getting nervous. Your competitors probably are looking closely at these technologies, and when the time is right, their barrier-to-exit will be lower than yours. Then, the true costs of moving an existing data center infrastructure to the cloud will become painfully obvious.

Many thanks to George for the excellent discussion. Twitter is becoming a great venue for cloud discussions.

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