Don't dismiss cloud computing hype; creative fog is what makes cloud work

"Cloud Computing" is raw material users shape to match their own plans for a technology future

In case you were looking for a well-informed, solidly objective take on the hype surrounding cloud computing, I'm going to suggest the first half of an essay I'd normally spend a lot of energy to ignore.

First, though, since it involves Cloud Computing, you have to pick among the three following options regarding hype about cloud computing, which has generated enough coverage in the press to outweigh the number of stories on cloud computing alone.

A. The hype surrounding cloud computing is undeniably intense, but only because it accurately reflects the incredible potential of the new technology.

B. The "hype" is simply the unavoidable enthusiasm of service providers who are now able to offer unprecedented levels of value and functionality to customers at prices neither thought possible.

C. A combination of financial, business-process-consulting and technological buzzwords and incompatible concepts piled so thick, held together with so many exclamation points they reveal "vision" as clearly as white smoke in a fog bank.

If you picked C, but hesitated because A and B aren't completely wrong even though they look as if they directly contradict C, congratulations. You either work in IT or have been around it long enough to understand that even the most intense BS often has more than the minimum required amount of truth.

The answer to the question of how much about "cloud" is real and how much is just smoke is not clear and never will be.

That's why I've started referring to the hype and technology collectively as "the fog," to make sure I'm including both hype and technology and discussion about the hype and the technology about a topic that is so meta by nature it's hard to talk about it at all.

You have to start by talking about what people say about cloud computing and never get too far away from that. Without the conceptual piece, cloud would never have grown into such a phenomenon and would never have generated so much discussion and content about a topic that demands both self-aware irony and earnest optimism to even get started.

"Why cloud computing hype isn't bad for IT after all" is a good case in point.

It's a blog entry, written well, poking fun at other blogs writing about the hype surrounding cloud computing, but it is written by Jay Fry, VP of marketing, Cloud Computing for CA Technologies, the guy in charge of hyping a service from a company more than a little desperate to keep from having its long-held niche in the enterprise computing market filled in by upstart fog machines.

In trying to describe the BS/reality ratio of most cloud hype, Fry cites a survey in ReadWriteWeb that asked readers to rate the most over-hyped technologies within cloud computing.

Their picks for most-overhyped – by which they meant most heavily coated with BS – were almost the same as definitions NIST published of the important technologies that go into cloud.

Then Fry criticizes the ReadWriteWeb piece not for being down on the hype, but for not being down enough on it.

The survey cited really generic categories of cloudy things and ignored only slightly more esoteric terms like cloudbursting and cloud brokers – one of which is a cutesy term for a genuinely practical approach to computing capacity, while the other serves the same role as a VAR or integrator for a company that can't afford to hire a specialist in the technology it is buying.

Even the term cloud has lost its meaning – according to a Fry-cited David Linthicum piece in Infoworld that included a Gartner Hype Cycle chart showing the instant that cloud computing missed its opportunity to shoot off the end of a ski jump and into well-deserved oblivion and, instead, dropped toward a low point during which everyone would hate even the mention of its name but use it cost-effectively every day.

I have to admit the most disturbing thing about all that Fry had to say to this point – though I know all the details are confusing to those who haven't lived among the Cloud people and smel't their thick'ning air – is that he's not only not completely wrong and self-serving as would be proper in a vendor-written marketing blog. Most of what he says is actually right.

Then he goes off the deep end in defending the hype as having helped promote cloud computing in the first place:

The hype about cloud computing has helped promote what can be a very stable and cost-effective technology, helping both vendors who can sell it and customers who can save money using it, Fry wrote, and did it in these specific ways:

Hype gave a name to the concept of variable-capacity, shared-resource, virtualized, genericized, variable-capacity computing platforms owned by someone else and available for rent on an as-needed basis.

It got the attention of IT – [Actually he wrote that "it created a way to catch the attention and imagination of IT," which means using cloud as a way to manipulate customers into paying you for a new product, rather than having it capture the imagination of technologists wanting to rebuild their Rube Goldbergish IT infrastructures along the cleaner lines of the cloud. Still, Fry meant well or, if he didn't, this is the only place he really slipped up.]

Hype pulled business-unit managers into the discussion for the first time [ except for every time one of them reads an airline magazine].

Hype pushed vendors into rethinking and recasting their products along lines more beneficial to customers. [Very true of some vendors, like Citrix and Salesforce, complete BS about others, who wave their arms and shout the word "cloud!" like an incantation that can make the rest of their presentation make sense.]

The intense discussion revealed how useful cloud can be. [True, but only as true as it is of every other technology ever.]

Though, as I said, a disturbing amount of Fry's analysis makes perfect sense (and sounds a lot like Andi Mann, the very sharp former Enterprise Management Associates analyst who now works for CA), the whole "hype makes cloud better" thing reverses cause and effect.

Hype does get people to pay attention to things they would not otherwise. If this were not true the Kardashians – creatures made up entirely of hype, gossip and wishful thinking – would fade into their component parts as perverted desires for pageviews and attention in the minds of tabloid web site editors.

Hype does not get technology widely accepted or adapted into dozens of new flavors, formats and delivery mechanisms, however.

If there were no substance behind the idea of "cloud," cloud itself would have faded over the course of less than a year and become just another failed computing concept, rather than branching out and subdividing the market for cloud in the same way the real IT market is divided – according to the functions IT itself has to deliver.

Software as a service? Platform as a service? Infrastructure as a service? Think applications, servers and enterprise applications that have to run in a data center with specially configured storage, computing and networking configurations.

Cloud computing generated a lot of hype not because it was good at hype, but because it worked. And it worked because it wasn't new technology at all.

It was old technology, or at least an old technology model – specialized servers, apps, storage and networking housed in a special location, tended by specialists and made available at a price that depends on how much of it the customer wants to use.

The new part, the magical part that actually does deserve some hype, is the series of virtualization and abstraction layers that settled over the top of the sharp corners, odd shapes, knobby protrusions and unusual smells that turned traditional data centers from something that could only fit anywhere if "anywhere" was a very oddly shaped place.

"Cloud computing" gave APIs and middleware and connections to storage and I/O and networks that needed few complicated configurations and no constant monitoring and upkeep because someone else was handling all that.

"Cloud Computing" didn't offer end users "computing" of any kind. It offered them access to the apps and data they needed, as much as they needed, right away, without having to listen to IT describe all the complications every time there was a change, or pay for half the hardware on the continent very time there needed to be an upgrade.

The reduction in headaches for IT and easy access to the real functions end users wanted to use are what caused the hype about cloud computing. It was the imagination of IT and the end users that drove the desire for cloud and the hype about it, not the other way around.

That's why cloud is simultaneously the most effective mechanism for accumulating BS and the most effective approach end-user companies can take to match their own requirements by virtualizing specific parts of the IT in the company and hiring specialized services outside of it.

It's also why "cloud" is the most hyped, most meaningless term on computing; it was never really meant to be anything else.

"Cloud" doesn't mean a particular type of software or hardware, or even a particular type of service provider.

"Cloud" is just a metaphor that means "someone over there is going to take care of all that part for us and we don't have to worry about all the grimy details."

That's the part that gets end users excited and, usually, scares the BS out of vendors who can't see far enough into the fog to be able to figure out which part of it they should occupy.

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.

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