Cloud Computing Requires a Change of MindSeptember 8, 2010
In what now seems like the ancient history of the technology industry, Sun Microsystems Inc. co-founder Scott McNealy talked about a future with “application dial tone.” Virtualization and cloud computing are getting us closer to that today, but there are still some major obstacles — and many of them aren’t technical.
One of the biggest obstacles is that users and organizations are still stuck structurally, budget-wise, and mentally in the client-server era.
Take the case of Google and the state of California. Google was essentially screened out of offering an email solution to California because the state’s requirements for email included features that Gmail doesn’t have — because it’s a cloud solution, not a client-server solution.
For example, Google argued that being able to find messages by search was much more effective than a client-driven filtering and sorting approach. But the requirement stood, and Google couldn’t play.
Ted Schadler, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. , told the Los Angeles Times that the state "probably wrote [the requirements] in a way that supported the way they were used to working. When any new innovative technology shows up, the old guard is looking at it and scratching their heads."
Google’s clash with California’s IT "old guard" is playing out against a backdrop of increasingly virtual infrastructure, whether it be on enterprise networks or on the public Internet. A Reflex Systems survey of more than 300 enterprise IT managers found that 53 percent of them plan to have at least half of their business-critical applications virtualized by the end of 2010. But virtualization, up to this point, has been primarily about making the applications we’ve been running for years cheaper and more reliable, while essentially keeping them the same.
During his keynote at VMworld, VMware Inc. (NYSE: VMW) CEO Paul Maritz said that "there are more applications now running on virtual infrastructure than on physical infrastructure." Yet most of those applications are the same apps people were running on physical servers a few years ago. They haven’t done anything to take advantage of the shift to a virtual infrastructure. Many businesses, Maritz said, "are stuck on 20- to 30-year-old batch code, and they’re not going to be able to deliver information-on-demand to customers. That’s going to require changes in application architecture."
The payoff for moving to that sort of new architecture can be a lot bigger than just better server utilization and uptime. The ultimate payoff of an enterprise architecture built on cloud-based services is a hybrid environment, where some of the servers are on the enterprise network, and some are at service providers or in a public cloud like Amazon’s Elastic Compute Cloud or Google’s App Engine — and where they are is driven from moment to moment by user demand, quality-of-service requirements, security, and economics.
So getting that payoff requires re-examining every aspect of how organizations deliver IT today.
Maritz spoke about the "new stack" that’s emerging for enterprise applications, which he sees soon displacing the client-server model of enterprise software. In the new stack, the operating system of a server or client becomes a secondary consideration. Virtual machine hypervisors and "cloud management" handle the interface with network, processors, and storage. Open application development stacks like Ruby on Rails run the applications. And virtual clients present the applications to users on a host of devices, including iPads and iPhones, Android and BlackBerry phones, and other devices — and sometimes even on a PC or thin client desktop.
Much of the "new stack" is already available, and other parts are falling into place: management tools that help provision, not just servers, but storage and network resources dynamically; and virtual presentation layers for applications that take advantage of devices’ native interfaces but don’t chain them to a specific hardware configuration.
The problem isn’t the technical barriers, but the changes that have to happen between people’s ears.