Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Head In Clouds, Feet On Ground.

Cloud Computing.  Who hasn't quailed at hearing that term, over and over, for the last year?  It's also not so much the words themselves, as the opinions for and against, all given as Every Absolute Truth You Always Wanted To Know About Cloud Computing But Were Afraid To Ask.  And to me the emphasis seems to be on the "Every" rather than the "Absolute."  No-one really knows how well it's going to work, who's going to be financing and making the clouds, how well Cloudsourcing Company A's cloud is going to interact with Cloudsourcing Company B's cloud, and whether it will be the answer to your prayers or not.

I'm definitely not an expert on any of that.  When I was working I found it was hard enough to keep up with my own server rooms and remote disaster recovery facilities.  I did, however, find time to play with virtualisation and cluster computing.  And improved a few places I worked at, I might add.  I can and will add my voice on the subject of CC.

To begin with, I think CC will benefit small enterprises and home businesses the most.  If you have a LAN and a broadband router going at ADSL2+ speeds, then you will gain a cloudy server room out there, without the cost of owning hardware, the ongoing air conditioning and electricity and consumed space costs.  They'll probably be the first to entrust data and logins to the cloud, the first to use cloudsourced computing power to get their product out to their public.

Home users too will be able to see some gains.  Storage, for a start.  How wikkid to stash your files *here* and then go *there* and be able to work on those same files?  Yeah, totally.  And using a legit copy of Microsoft Office online versus risking being caught with a "liberated" version?  Priceless.  (Or not... %)

But established businesses with more than a few servers will find that it's less percent of gain to them.  Because, you will no doubt prefer to keep local logins, for the time being at least.  And the most sensitive files - that's human nature, after all.  In almost all cases, I see the IT staff will be the ones pushing for this and trying to make a business case for CC.  Management just isn't (sorry CEOs and other ULM) very savvy about IT, because if they were, they'd be in IT instead of management.  It's like saying that because a person is skilled at using surfboards, they are great at making them.  Or vice versa.  People have skill sets.

I had to "sneak" virtual computing into the network, find an old clunker server and slip VMware onto it, then install a server virtual machine and use it for a non-core service, then find another non-critical server service and slip that onto the same machine, until I could reliably switch between the mission-purposed machine and the VM without a hassle.  Then I switched the mission-purposed machines off and waited for one of the random inspections to reveal that we were using less machines and electricity and still fulfilling all our IT needs...

I'd tried to get official sanction for VM technology, but it kept getting put off and put off.  Never outright forbidden mind you, and so I took the initiative.  But I figure CC will need to pull much the same stunt.

There's a few other questions that everyone who wants to use CC will need to answer.  Who's going to pay for this?  Will it cost you a significant outlay and significant ongoing costs, more than half of what you'd expect to pay for keeping these services locally?  Because then, I can see that given the other drawbacks of CC, you might be better off keeping those services locally.

Will there be a significant security risk for you?  How sensitive is the service and associated data for you?  Because, in the case of an attack on a local server cluster after your customer data, for example, your IT department can, as a last resort, physically pull the network cable to that cluster.  I "pulled the plug" on our entire internet connection when the company webserver farm was hit by one of the first ever DDoS attacks back in the early days, saved us a bundle because in those days bandwidth was expensive.

If someone is cracking into your data in a cloudsourced situation, you don't get the option to shut that service down.  Indeed, if a critial set of CC servers goes down you don't even get the choice to call your IT staff and have them do a callout.

Sorry if this is an overly simplistic view of CC - but I'm often an overly simplistic person when it comes to those things, and it's generally stood me in good stead.  I'm often overly conscious of security or reliability implications that my management considered too slim a chance to worry about - and invariably were glad they'd let me plug anyway...  And I can see so many points of failure and breach in CC that it makes my eyes water and my palms sweat.

All that said, I do use Google's mail and apps almost exclusively, with Star Office locally, and I use several other software services "out there" to store and synchronise files, bookmarks, and photographs.  I use services "out there" to collaborate with other people and run projects.  I just make sure I have some form of local backup, is all...

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