Sunday, March 28, 2010

Why Cloud Computing Won’t Lead to Dumb Terminals

It’s easy to fast forward to a time where cloud computing will once again lead to an era of dumb terminals. However, I don’t believe that to be true.

Back when dumb terminals were the norm, the world of computers was quite different than it is now. Most importantly the cost of computer systems was staggeringly higher than it is now and the pace of advancement was much slower.

Moore’s Law is at a point where our individual workstations have processing power equivalent to high end servers of only a few years ago. It only makes sense that horsepower at the workstation provides for a promising future for distributed computing and at some point the ubiquity of grid computing. Leveraging millions, and even billions, of computers as opposed to a much smaller set of monolithic servers is a more likely model.

A server-based model provides for central points of of failure; distributed and grid computing does not.

With cloud computing, the proximity of our data is less important (and likely to be less obvious) but it does not necessarily point to a future where my laptop plugs into the network as a throw back to mainframe days.

I believe it actually points to a time that compares more closely to peer to peer computing, similar to Groove’s replication of data across a network of computers. This eliminates central points of failure, promotes greater power (horsepower and  volume) by leveraging large numbers, and is more conducive to offline computing and synchronization.

We are all guessing at this early stage of cloud computing, on which every server and workstation is merely a node, so I’m interested in your perspective.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Proximity Problem: A Cloud Fable Part II

The Internet has provided opportunities to advance efficiencies like no other time in human history. With proximity becoming less important every nanosecond, collaboration between parties half way around the world is now possible on an on-demand and real-time basis. I’d like to think altruistically and see the world as a utopian Garden of Eden where everyone is working together for the betterment of mankind, but alas, that is not reality - especially in the trade of underground contraband.

Manuel is part of a South American drug cartel. He and his peers view their operation like any other multi-national conglomerate. The objective is to increase revenue and profits. Just-In-Time Manufacturing is as real here as in any other enterprise. The concept of Kanban, the infamous innovation from the Toyota Production Process (TPS) that has been replicated in so many industries is a fully blown implementation in Manuel’s operation.

The United States, Manuel’s monolithic neighbor to the north, is not only his biggest and most profitable region but also his most tenacious and sophisticated foe. Travel to the US for business meetings has never been risk free. Since 9/11, however, the risks associated with in-person business meetings whether in the US or at home, have increased dramatically.

Like any high performing enterprise, Manuel’s is innovative and constantly striving to stay ahead of their competition. With the risk of international travel increasing for both Manuel and his customers, the cloud has been a boon to removing proximity as an attribute of doing business.

One innovation is the use of video conferencing as a way of entering into business agreements between Manuel and his customers. Not only does video conferencing mitigate the risk of in-person meetings but also provides the byproduct of recording the meetings thus acting as a binding contract between the parties.

When choosing his provider, Manuel knew that he could not choose one from the US. The Patriot Act took that option off the table immediately. So he opted for an off-shore provider. One domiciled in a sympathetic nation. In addition to the typical criteria such as functionality, bandwidth, and up-time, Manuel also considered things like extradition and privacy laws of the host nation.

Manuel’s organization embraced the cloud in many ways beyond video conferencing. Coupled with video conferencing, his cloud-based providers for storage, ERP, CRM, email, and banking, Manuel could conduct business anywhere and with anyone. Moving his operation was limited to moving people – not infrastructure and data.

What Manuel did not, and likely could not, consider was the complete infrastructure of his providers.

Cloud-providers potential Achilles heel is redundancy and failover. Customers of cloud providers expect near 100% up-time. The best providers fall into the Five-9s category (99.999%). To provide that kind of uptime there needs to be a sophisticated infrastructure with the same goal as Manuel – minimize proximity as a central point of failure. What Manuel did not know was that several of his providers contracted with US firms for redundancy, load balancing, and disaster recovery.

The one flaw in Manuel’s planning has now come home to roost.

The US DEA has indicted Manuel and a Chicago-based group, which was made up of US citizens, green-card holders, and illegal aliens, for illegal drug trafficking. After years of undercover operations, wire tapping, and packet sniffing, the DEA uncovered a recording of a video conference contract from a data center in Tucson, AZ. The Tucson data center was a tertiary load-balancing location for Manuel’s Chinese conferencing provider. Apparently Manuel struck a big deal over the Chinese New Year when many Chinese expatriates from around the world used his provider to video conference with their families back home. The provider experienced a high volume of calls when Manuel entered into these negotiations which kicked in the tertiary site in Tucson based on call volume and proximity of the callers in the system at the time – the Tucson data center was the most central of those data centers between Chicago and Manuel’s Venezuelan villa.

The DEA has its work cut out for it. Manuel is busted but his nation is unfriendly to US interests. The domicile of the video conferencing provider is likely to be equally uncooperative. If the US is lucky enough through interrogations or packet sniffing to intercept data related to Manuel’s other cloud-based providers, it’s likely to encounter the same minimal level of cooperation from those providers and their home nations.

However, Manuel has an equally uncomfortable situation. His epiphany is that he has no idea where all his data are stored and by the very nature of the Internet there is likely no way to remove it from the locations that can work to his disadvantage. His proximity and flexibility advantages are to an unknown extent countered by his lack of control over those environments.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Going Rogue: A Cloud Fable

The leadership within a certain division, let’s call it the BizDev division, of a fortune 500 company is entrepreneurial by nature and thus results oriented. BizDev is impatient with the red-tape required to get anything done. Capital expenditures are difficult to get approved and initiatives are equally difficult to resource, initiate, and complete. The leadership’s perception of their peers within the divisions from which they consume services is that because of resource constraints they have a basic reflex towards being obstructionists.

Being entrepreneurial, innovation comes naturally to the BizDev leadership team. They contemplated bypassing the corporate infrastructure and protocol for the greater good of their group. The BizDev team looked to the cloud for solutions to their bureaucratic woes. Using operational instead of capital expenditures for outsourced cloud services made sense to them. Implementing cloud solutions is quick, the process is simple, and if they stay mainstream, the vendors will be known quantities with effective and reliable track records. Why trudge the internal landscape when you can subscribe to existing solutions that satisfy the 80-20 rule. BizDev decided to roll the dice; guessing that the monolith didn’t have the appetite to stop them

BizDev was going rogue.

BizDev specializes in content management and as such has significant storage requirements. They looked to Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) providers to solve their problem. Storing content at an IaaS provides them with the ability to increase and decrease their requirements in a self-service kind of way with virtually no red-tape. The BizDev team saw this as a no brainer and after a relatively quick selection process contracted with a vendor and began using their services shortly thereafter. The IT division with the company got wind of the cloud deal and although outwardly condemns the move doesn’t fight it and is actually relieved to get BizDev off their back.

BizDev’s gambit paid off. Over the course of several years, BizDev’s use of content management providers became more sophisticated by using specific vendors based on cost and functionality related to specific media. They also expanded its use of the cloud by encouraging its thought leaders to blog using the blog space of their choice and by actively using as many of the available social networking sites as possible.

Word of BizDev’s success in the cloud spread throughout the organization to other divisions. Many using the cloud for their own purposes; marketing, software development, legal services, ERP, CRM; you name the cloud service offering and it was being used somewhere within the company.

Although there was apprehension about the lack of governance over the use of cloud providers and the policies around their use, there was no appetite to take on a task that most anticipated to be a politically charged and multi-year project involving many resources. The use of cloud services was widespread and for the most was providing huge benefits with regards to speed to market, flexibility, and cost reduction. The cloud was considered a boon to efficiency that dramatically improved the organization.

Until the indictment.

The SEC came down hard on the company for alleged indiscretions related to business deals, profit forecasts, and accounting schemes. In addition to emails related to the executives of the organization, the opposing counsel is asking for all the marketing material related to BizDev and other business units to determine if fraudulent claims have been made about product effectiveness.

The company’s lack of governance over cloud resources is now making the process of providing discoverable resources to opposing counsel within federally mandated time frames untenable.

Where does all the marketing content reside? How do they capture what’s required and filter out what isn’t? Are the cloud providers prepared (and willing) to provide what’s requested by the opposing counsel? What are their retention policies and do they follow federally mandated regulations?

Have the respective business units maintained compliance with corporate policies related to external marketing? Is there a controlled and comprehensive set of messaging that’s contained in blogs and articles written by thought leaders? Are there any incriminating status messages posted by overzealous thought leaders in their favorite social networking sites? How does the company search for, retrieve, and provide social networking status messages for key individuals?

Although the cloud is becoming, and will continue to be, a direction for cheap and scalable solutions to common business problems, without governance business entities potentially put themselves in tenuous positions. The cloud is just another option like the myriad of other options for conducting business operations. And as such, cloud vendors should fall under the governance of corporate policies like any other vendor.

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