How’s That “Cloud” Thing Working For You?
Color me skeptical when it comes to the “cloud computing” craze. Well, OK, maybe my skepticism isn’t so much about cloud computing per se as it is about the way people seem to think it is the ultimate answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything (shameless Douglass Adams reference). In part, that’s because I’ve been around IT long enough that I’ve seen previous incarnations of this concept come and go. Application Service Providers were supposed to take the world by storm a decade ago. Didn’t happen. The idea came back around as “Software as a Service” (or, as Microsoft preferred to frame it, “Software + Services”). Now it’s cloud computing. In all of its incarnations, the bottom line is that you’re putting your critical applications and data on someone else’s hardware, and sometimes even renting their Operating Systems to run it on and their software to manage it. And whenever you do that, there is an associated risk – as several users of Amazon’s EC2 service discovered just last week.
I have no doubt that the forensic analysis of what happened and why will drag on for a long time. Justin Santa Barbara had an interesting blog post last Thursday (April 21) that discussed how the design of Amazon Web Services (AWS), and its segmentation into Regions and Availability Zones, is supposed to protect you against precisely the kind of failure that occurred last week…except that it didn’t.
Phil Wainewright has an interesting post over at ZDnet.com on the “Seven lessons to learn from Amazon’s outage.” The first two points he makes are particularly important: First, “Read your cloud provider’s SLA very carefully” – because it appears that, despite the considerable pain some of Amazon’s customers were feeling, the SLA was not breached, legally speaking. Second, “Don’t take your provider’s assurances for granted” – for reasons that should be obvious.
Wainewright’s final point, though, may be the most disturbing, because it focuses on Amazon’s “lack of transparency.” He quotes BigDoor CEO Keith Smith as saying, “If Amazon had been more forthcoming with what they are experiencing, we would have been able to restore our systems sooner.” This was echoed in Santa Barbara’s blog post where, in discussing customers’ options for failing over to a different cloud, he observes, “Perhaps they would have started that process had AWS communicated at the start that it would have been such a big outage, but AWS communication is – frankly – abysmal other than their PR.” The transparency issue was also echoed by Andrew Hickey in an article posted April 26 on CRN.com.
CRN also wrote about “lessons learned,” although they came up with 10 of them. Their first point is that “Cloud outages are going to happen…and if you can’t stand the outage, get out of the cloud.” They go on to talk about not putting “Blind Trust” in the cloud, and to point out that management and maintenance are still required – “it’s not a ‘set it and forget it’ environment.”
And it’s not like this is the first time people have been affected by a failure in the cloud:
- Amazon had a significant outage of their S3 online storage service back in July, 2008. Their northern Virginia data center was affected by a lightning strike in July of 2009, and another power issue affected “some instances in its US-EAST-1 availability zone” in December of 2009.
- Gmail experienced a system-wide outage for a period of time in August, 2008, then was down again for over 1 ½ hours in September, 2009.
- The Microsoft/Danger outage in October, 2009, caused a lot of T-Mobile customers to lose personal information that was stored on their Sidekick devices, including contacts, calendar entries, to-do lists, and photos.
- In January, 2010, failure of a UPS took several hundred servers offline for hours at a Rackspace data center in London. (Rackspace also had a couple of service-affecting failures in their Dallas area data center in 2009.)
- Salesforce.com users have suffered repeatedly from service outages over the last several years.
This takes me back to a comment made by one of our former customers, who was the CIO of a local insurance company, and who later joined our engineering team for a while. Speaking of the ASPs of a decade ago, he stated, “I wouldn’t trust my critical data to any of them – because I don’t believe that any of them care as much about my data as I do. And until they can convince me that they do, and show me the processes and procedures they have in place to protect it, they’re not getting my data!”
Don’t get me wrong – the “Cloud” (however you choose to define it…and that’s part of the problem) has its place. Cloud services are becoming more affordable, and more reliable. But, as one solution provider quoted in the CRN “lessons learned” article put it, “Just because I can move it into the cloud, that doesn’t mean I can ignore it. It still needs to be managed. It still needs to be maintained.” Never forget that it’s your data, and no one cares about it as much as you do, no matter what they tell you. Forrester analyst Rachel Dines may have said it best in her blog entry from last week: “ASSUME NOTHING. Your cloud provider isn’t in charge of your disaster recovery plan, YOU ARE!” (She also lists several really good questions you should ask your cloud provider.)
Cloud technologies can solve specific problems for you, and can provide some additional, and valuable, tools for your IT toolbox. But you dare not assume that all of your problems will automagically disappear just because you put all your stuff in the cloud. It’s still your stuff, and ultimately your responsibility.
I must say that cloud computing is simply amazing! It’s good to know that cloud services are now more affordable and reliable. This will surely help a lot of people to solve their specific problems.
Great information! You definitely taught me a few things, which I’m very happy about. You seem to know what you’re talking about. Thank you for sharing!
I think Cloud Working and Cloud Computing is the Future. Good post!
For those who may have thought this post was over the top, I submit:
@SquidlyMan – Absolutely true. And it works really, really well…until it doesn’t. How many of you have actually read the Service Level Agreement / Terms and Conditions from your on-line backup service provider? I’ll guarantee you that it says something like: “We are seventeen flavors of awesome, and nobody in the universe will do a better job of backing up your data than us…but if something goes wrong and we lose your data, it’s not our fault and you can’t hold us responsible for anything.”
My quarrel really isn’t with the cloud, which, as you say, is here to stay. But I believe there is going to be a period of painful adjustment, possibly marked by business failures and the horror stories of people who have lost priceless pictures, personal financial data, etc., because they incorrectly assumed that they could put their stuff in the cloud and never worry about it again, and everything would be all right. And, yes, I’ll also grant you that it’s probably safer in the cloud than it is on someone’s personal PC that’s never backed up…but that’s not saying much.
For additional reading, I’d recommend:
The latter shows Cloud Computing as just past the “Peak of Inflated Expectations” and heading down into the “Trough of Disillusionment.” I believe that Cloud Computing is one technology that will eventually make it out of the trough, up the “Slope of Enlightenment” (which is where people finally begin to figure out what it’s best suited for and how to use it), and onto the “Plateau of Productivity” (where it becomes a relatively mature and useful technology). But it’s going to take a while, and more painful lessons are going to be learned along the way.
The one thing most people don’t realize is, Cloud Computing is here today and here to stay. And if you have more than one computing device (Computer, Laptop, Smart Phone, Tablet, smart TV, Game Console, etc.) and you synchronize anything between two or more using a separate (usually 3rd party) service such as files (DropBox, Box.net), data (Mozy, Carbonite, etc.), media (Kindle, iTunes, WebEx, Picasa, Flickr, YouTube, OnDemand TV, XBox Live, etc.), email/calendar (pick your preference), social networking (i.e. FaceBook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.), then you’re using Cloud Computing. It may be a private cloud, a public cloud, a corporate cloud, or a hybrid (combination) cloud, but it’s still cloud computing at it’s very basic which is sharing of data through apps across multiple platforms. The computing device is more and more just an entry point into the data via the app upon it, storing only cached copies or partial copies of the data for conducting the business (or play) at hand. No longer do we users of information store data on a single desktop computer (or device) at home or the office. Whether we admit it or not, most (if not all) of us use cloud computing every day.