An interesting thing has been happening on the way to the fully cloud-ified IT universe in which every company is able to call on as much computing power as it needs, of whatever kind, using whatever software, then return it to the vast, immutable ether, paying later only for what the used of this vast and magical power without being responsible for creating, training, feeding or protecting anything at all.
As more and more services, companies, computer functions and preventers-of-evil-computer-functions cram into the cloud-computing market, the market as a whole is starting to look a lot more like any single location connected to it.
There are some obvious examples; Amazon's EC2 Infrastructure as a Service (IAAS) looks like a data-center-for-hire even from the outside because that's exactly what it is.
Customers can run what they want and tune it with bandwidth, storage, memory, additional servers, security and every other data-center tool they want because IAAS is designed to be the idealized version of the dusty, rural, physically uncomfortable satellite data centers IT staff run off to twice a year to do disaster-recovery training.
The difference is that, on Amazon's Cloud side of the rainbow, all the hardware is up to date, the software all works and no one has to worry about uptime, ever.
(EC2 still goes down, as do Microsoft's Azure, Google's Gmail and everything else anyone ever built to manage information, but customers don't have to worry about it. They just ignore the possibility until it happens and then get to yell a lot until it's fixed. IT staffers don't get enough chances to yell at people. They don't have time in between being yelled at by users.)
Despite all that glitters, there's layers of data-center services under them thar clouds
So, yes, there's a mysterious gloss on cloudish information technology structures, a little pixie dust (or that glitter that got jammed in every seam of your clothes and would never come out no matter how often you washed them since you went to that over-the-top vendor reception at a conference in Vegas).
If you shield your eyes a bit, though, you can see a dark pyramid shape hidden in the mists and shifting winds full of glitter.
Generally the fog of marketing-speak is so thick you can't see the real structure of what the infrastructure of what cloud computing is becoming as an industry without getting dangerously close, fighting your way through glitter haboobies and dodging rabid killer unicorns to do it.
When you see it, it's a real letdown – a little too familiar.
Renting parts without knowing what they are
It looks suspiciously like networks divided into the seven OSI functional layers or data-center diagrams drawn by people with so weak a sense of space they put the storage 100 miles from the transaction processing monitor.
The interesting thing is, you can rent every layer, every stratum of data-center function from someone different, if you like, no matter how far apart they are.
If you look at any data-center diagram or illustration of OSI, you see the bottom is a physical layer – the wires that run from your data center to the cloud-service's data center.
You rent them from telcos, which traditionally operate exactly as cloud providers do, though in a less evolved way. (In the Telco language, "cloud" means "don't worry your pretty little head about all that technical stuff. Just plug into the wall, pay us a lot of money and we'll take care of everything. Eventually.)
You have to do the Layer 2 part yourself – packing your odd-tasting foreign data into packets other networks are willing to take with them and apps are willing to taste.
That's the only part, though.
The Layer 3 – Switching and Routing – also comes from telcos, as does Transport in Layer 4. (Both are actually Transport; it's just that Transport 4 is a little smarter than Transport 3 and there's more money in making hardware for Transport 3, so it's treated by vendors as being really important.
Layer 5 – Session – is what cloud platform software is all about. It's a broker that sets up connections between apps and databases, apps and other apps, apps and networks, deals with their conflicts and fights, divorces them when necessary, and kills or drives them off the cloud when it's time for the end user using them to go.
IAAS services like Amazon's EC2 live here. It lets you play in the data center and expects you to do something useful while you're at it, which is surprisingly complex and difficult for technology that's supposed to be easy.
Talking the apps into and out of all those things is tricky, but cloud providers don't do it any differently than you do. They stuff so many APIs, middleware and message-exchanges into a box that it squirms, like stuffing a shoebox past the bursting point with live mice that try harder to get out as you try to stuff more of them in.
The cloud providers try not to let you see that, though. It's kind of industrial and ugly compared to the shine and the fog.
Don't look too close; you don't want to know.
If you bend down to get too close to the box full of Layer 5 mice, the unicorn protecting them – which wears a name tag that reads Hello, My Name is Glitter – will poke you a lot harder in the backside than something named Glitter should be able to manage. Those horns weren’t made for stirring Jello, though, so be careful.
Layer 6 encrypts, decrypts, wraps, unwraps and presents all the nasty foreign bits you packetized and sent over so one of the apps can do something about it. It also lives in every cloud that runs apps, whether SAAS or IAAS, all of them have one. Some just tape and tuck a little better than others.
Among the best is Microsoft's Azure and the rest of the platform as a service (PAAS) crowd. PAAS is exactly like renting a server you can run an app on without ever having to touch the server. Everything below the Run button is taken care of by someone else.
A lot of companies don't like how little control that gives them, so Microsoft added more ability to manage individual apps, change the amount of memory or disk space or glitter any given app gets, to let customers tune the performance they get. It's still basically a generic Windows server you rent straight from Microsoft, though.
Layer 7 is a whole market segment – the Apps Layer. SAAS is all layer 7. So are all the apps are available as software as a service, run on Infrastructure as a Service or Platform as a Service, hide data in storage as a Service, let users talk about it over Unified Communications as a Service or Videoconferencing as a service and even keep their strength up using location-sensitive dietary supply operations specializing in Italian, Chinese or even American nutritional products in the burgeoning Lunch Delivery as a Service.
Who cares if THE CLOUD is really IT? Just ignore it (IT); just like at work.
Don't let it all scare you. It's perfectly OK that the Cloud is actually made up of networks and data centers and that even that, looked at as a whole, the cloud-computing market is starting to look more and more like one giant, highly distributed data center.
That's what it's supposed to look like if you see it on a sunny, dry day – acres of data centers with expert running them, so anyone who wants a few petaflops of shallow, short-term joy can get what they think they need without commitment or responsibility.
It's just important to remember what you're getting into. Exactly the same thing you're getting out of: computers, storage, applications security, way too much air conditioning that, inexplicably, doesn't work.
And geeks. Lots of geeks. They're there to feed the machines. To make sure the machines don't eat the users. Just as they are inside corporate data centers.
Cloud companies are a lot better and imagery, perception and marketing than internal IT people, though.
They know business users would rather not see any of that, and rightly so (mostly). Users shouldn’t have to learn geek-speak to get their work done.
When business managers need and ERP system faster than IT can deliver, they know they can go rent one themselves; And the ERP landlords know the customers want to see mystery and power, not bits, bytes and bolts.
They understand when it's time to fire up the fog machines, throw open the doors and give the marks a demonstration of unimaginable power hidden in mist that only shows shadows an bright, fuzzy points of magic light where the flashing buttons on scary computers would be, if there were any scary computers in the fog, that is.
You don't want to know what all the pieces are, and where they are and how much they cost!
That would only make it a lot more clear that, at some point, the cloud computing industry is going to start consolidating because it's way too expensive for all those companies to keep all that technology going 24/7 under all those layers of abstraction serving customers who come to them for servers and storage and someone else for content distribution and web serving and someone else for security and backup and remote access and more storage and app/dev space and email distribution and...
IT won't go back to being do-it-yourself the way it once was. But cloud computing won't remain a market filled with one-trick-ponies, either. Not even if the ponies are unicorns.
Eventually the standalones are going to consolidate, because it's cheaper for them that way, and the worry most end-user companies have been avoiding about not being able to move VMs or workloads from one cloud to another, not being able to federate security or integrate their own legacy apps or even keep straight how many SAAS apps they actually use, will all come true within a few months.
It won't be the next few months, but it won't be so many that the IT people signing the contracts will be so far into their next jobs or advanced in their careers that treating a whole industry as if it's a design-your-own-data-center cafeteria line won't come back to haunt them, either.
By next spring the smart money in IT will be worried about problems with consolidation, probably sparked by some high-profile examples of cloud companies buying each other out.
By next fall even second-tier adopters will be worried about the fallout, because talk of consolidation always causes consolidation; vendor CEOs get scared just like CIOs do, and sometimes react just as irrationally.
The question CIOs should be asking isn't whether to use the cloud, it's how they should use it so when it starts to shrink into a smaller, denser, more blinding mass, they don't end up so wet they short out a whole IT operation.
Fog is beautiful from a distance, like pictures of hurricanes from space.
The closer you get and the denser they become, the more destructive both can be, if you're not already prepared for the time a little wind turns into a roof ripper or a little haze turns into a blinding, pea-soup fog.
Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.