Friday, August 21, 2009

Vision Versus Hype

Awhile ago, Alvin Toffler's Future Shock painted a vision of radical societal change due to technology advances and attitude shifts. Toffler projected changes that would transform the world thirty years in the future. I recall how foreign and frightening his book was to the average reader who could not fathom the depth of change heading their way. Vision is seldom easy to comprehend and often challenging to embrace. Experience has taught us to be wary of visions based upon over-hyped technologies. The's boom and bust cycle was an example where the reality took longer to catchup to the over-hyped technology. The hype associated with Cloud Computing seems to swell larger with each passing day.

How can one use the vague information contained within visions to help with today's decisions? In Peter Schwartz' Art of the Long View, he outlines how one can use information gathering, scenarios, driving forces and plots to help make better decisions today. All one needs to do is agree that the basis of a scenario could happen. They need not agree that the scenario will happen. Agreeing a scenario could happen is a much lower bar and easier for most people to accept. Scenarios have a probability of occurring. They make sense given the data, driving forces and plots. They are seldom accurate. Collectively, they give views into possible futures. Given these views, one can evaluate how current decisions might play out against selected backdrops. As the probability of a scenario increases, one can develop contingency plans and/or change plans.

My experience in building complex distributed systems and Cloud Computing platforms provides me a detailed view of how these types of systems are assembled, used by developers, and will likely evolve. However, I felt that I was missing the cloud (forest) for the technical details (trees). I was lacking a larger vision of how companies, markets and consumption could change as Cloud Computing evolves. I turned to Peter Fingar's Dot.Cloud book to see if he could provide a vision for these areas. Just as in Future Shock, Dot.Cloud paints a challenging vision of what may change due to Cloud Computing. Using Schwartz' notion of accepting what could happen, I found Fingar's book eye-opening. I have started to add some of Fingar's information and trends to my own Cloud Computing scenarios.

In particular, I was intrigued by Fingar's chapter on the 'End of Management' and bioteams. Fingar linked together a number of trends (Cloud Computing, Web 2.0, Work Processor, Innovation, and Work 2.0) to describe how and why historic management practices may not be effective in the future. Fingar described the rise of bioteams, or high performance teams with collective leadership. Needless to say, Ken Thompson's Bioteams book is high on my reading list. Just as I finished up Dot.Cloud, I picked up the Monday, August 17, 2009 Wall Street Journal and found The New, Faster Face of Innovation article written by Erik Brynjolfsson and Michael Schrage which echos Fingar's 'End of Management' chapter.

While the Cloud Computing hype continues to grow, I'm encouraged that there is considerable, well-considered material to foster what the Cloud Computing future may hold for us. The challenge is to keep the visions separated from the hype, to embrace the could happen, and be mindful of the will happen. Scenarios may be useful mechanisms to have constructive discussions about the future.

A disclosure, I may have given Fingar the benefit of the doubt beyond reason since he drew upon Dr. John Vicent Atanasoff as an example. I received my Computer Science degree at Iowa State University. I have a fondness of Dr. Atanasoff's work at Iowa State College and his place in computer history.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Commoditization of IT Operations

My response to 'What will be commoditized by the Cloud?' made during Cloud Camp Boston was "The commoditization we're going to see in the cloud is operations". These new entrants to Cloud Computing seemed to imply that storage, networks and computers were already commodities and unless something else was being commoditized, Cloud Computing would not create sufficient value to succeed. There are other benefits to Cloud Computing, but let's stay on the IT operations aspect for now.

I'm not ready to go as far as Nichols Carr has gone in declaring IT Doesn't Matter nor what's been attributed to Thomas Siebel. Current IT practices emerged in response to the application creation/selection process. The application creation/selection process determines what IT operations must deploy in data centers to support the business. As an over-simplistic example, a company determines that they need a new CRM application. They evaluate CRM applications that were written and tested months or years earlier by an ISV for the market-at-large. The application specifies the supported hardware platform(s), software stack(s), patch level(s), network configuration(s), data access methodology(ies) and monitoring/management interface(s). Once the specific CRM application is selected and purchased, IT operations has to develop a runbook specific to the application for deployment in a specific data center(s). The various IT operations departments work together to fit the application's requirements into their existing infrastructure, and procure new, unique, or additional components, or 'one-offs'. They have to side-step other applications' conflicting requirements and 'one-offs' to complete the deployment. IT operations' job complexity has to be staggering as they deal with hundreds or thousands of deployed applications. Maybe that's why IT operations like to leave a newly deployed application untouched for months or years while they tend to the other applications.

Essential characteristics for Cloud Computing include: on-demand self-service, ubiquitous network access, location independent resource pooling, rapid elasticity, and measured service. Cloud Computing will provide these essential characteristics affordably through virtualization, automation, programmatic control and standards[1]. Applications and automated runbooks will be developed specifically for the Cloud. Programming will automate the manual work done on infrastructure (network, storage, data base, and system) and application configuration, management, monitoring, and maintenance. The automation will drive the cost of operations lower. The virtualization, automation, programmatic control and standards will commoditize IT operations. Evidence of this progress are appearing now as virtualization companies and cloud suppliers automate the allocation, configuration, monitoring, and management of infrastructure and applications.

IT operations will take back control from the applications to deliver better efficiency and lower cost through using public and private Clouds. The pressure to increase IT operations' efficiency and lower costs will be great enough that applications be re-written and automated runbooks will be developed. The historic pressure of creating 'one-offs' in IT operations for unique application requirements will fade. How many 'one-off' requests do you think Amazon has gotten since they started up AWS? I'd bet a lot. How many 'one-off' requests have Amazon implemented? I'd bet none. AWS cannot afford to make custom changes for any application. The same is likely for Google AppEngine, and Microsoft Azure. In the future, it may even be likely for IT operations.

What should we call this new world of commoditization of IT operations? What about OPS 2.0? OPS 2.0 fits along side Web 2.0, Enterprise 2.0, and Everything 2.0, doesn't it?

[1] No standards exist and are likely years away. The industry will likely generate many competing ways of doing Cloud Computing before an a priori or de facto standard comes about. Industry-wide efficiency and cost savings won't be possible until then.