You’re still asking the wrong questions about cloud computing

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The city of Santa Clara is covered by a cloud this week, but not the kind of clouds most folks associate with California. CloudConnect 2011 is gearing up for a week of sessions and workshops, thought-provoking panels and general conversation on a topic that continues to be top of mind for everyone from press to analysts to IT professionals.

“Everyone” is going to be there. Well, everyone but me.

Now you might think that’s odd, that a co-chair of a track at a conference wouldn’t attend the show. My cohort in cloud crime, Randy Bias twitterbird , will be moderating many of the Private Cloud track panels and generally making sure that the track is as exciting, informative and educational as we hope it will be. But I’ll be in my home office, watching the chatter and sound-bites intently from the sidelines via Twitter and blogs.

I rarely wax too personal or complain because, well, I’m from the mid-west. We’re stoics and pragmatists and “it is what it is” is not an uncommon mantra for us. But it’s pertinent in this case as it’s ultimately the cause of my absence from the show and provides some insight into cloud computing and organizational approaches to leveraging the right “cloud” for the “application”.

WHAT CELIACS can TEACH US about CONTROL

Nearly two years I ago I was diagnosed with Celiac’s Disease. There’s a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding about Celiac’s out there and even folks who have  family members diagnosed often don’t “get” the impact on your daily life, to say nothing about traveling and professional life.

Add in a healthy dose of the popularizing of a “gluten-free” diet as the “new black” of dietary health for very visible celebrities like Oprah and you have yourself a perfect storm of misconception regarding a disease that’s most often described by experts as “debilitating.” That’s probably because most Celiac’s are very thin, so it must be what they eat, right? Unfortunately for everyone, it isn’t the diet, that’s malabsorption and malnutrition – neither of which are really good things in the long run.

Talk to folks who frequent support forums for sufferers of Celiac’s and you’ll generally find a common theme regarding travel: they’ve given up. We don’t eat out at restaurants and we don’t travel far from the safety net of our own homes. That’s because at home we have control; not just over what we eat but our environment. We have control over the process by which the food we eat is prepared and served and ultimately that’s as important if not more so than what that food contains.

Every Celiac reacts differently to ingesting gluten. Some experience no side-effects at all (asymptomatic) and others are wracked with so much pain and illness they end up in the hospital. If you think about having a stomach flu for 2-3 weeks you wouldn’t be far from how many Celiac’s react to ingesting even microscopic amounts of gluten. Yes, microscopic amounts. Trust me, our Toddler is the cleanest three-year old in existence – the dust from Captain Crunch Berries is full of gluten, after all, and three-year olds are not known for their proficiency with utensils (or their proclivity to use them). If you think about how that translates to eating out or on the run at a conference, you’ll probably see that practice is a whole lot more difficult than the theory.

It’s all about process in my house these days; about following certain procedures to ensure that even minute traces of gluten do not come in contact with me, my food, or anything I might touch. If you can imagine trying to enforce such processes and policies while traveling you’ll probably see why so many Celiacs give up and cut travel from their lives. So after more than a year of traveling to conferences and events and ending up sick I took a step back to try to figure out how I could manage the processes and procedures I need to enforce to stay healthy while traveling. What I’ve discovered is that as with cloud computing, control is not a synonym for “do it yourself”, it’s about asking the right questions before you do anything else.

DO not CONFUSE CONTROL with DIY

Like Celiac’s, cloud computing is not just about the ingredients, it’s about how they are put together; the process and preparation. Ultimately ensuring that a cloud computing initiative achieves the goals it was intended to for the organization require control.

That control is over the implementation and ultimately control over the deployment to ensure ongoing compliance with operational and organizational policies intended to ensure the efficiency, security and speedy delivery of applications critical to the business. Which makes the standard question “Which applications are ‘right’ for the cloud?” the wrong question in the first place.

It’s not just the applications you have to match to any given cloud implementation, it’s the application ecosystem. Dependencies on application and network infrastructure providing for the security, optimization or availability of the application must be considered when determining where to deploy an application – internal, external, cloud, or traditional. As part of the vendor “machine” I of course hope you want to replicate your infrastructure in the cloud, but in many cases today this is simply not realistic. Either topological constraints or infrastructure integration issues will prevent such a deployment from happening. What’s important, overall, is to match the application’s operational dependencies to services available in a cloud environment. If that’s by deploying virtual network appliances, great. If it’s leveraging services in the cloud, that’s great too. The point is that you can’t simply look at the application, you have to examine its dependencies in the storage and application delivery network and replicate them, through service or solution, in the cloud environment (or architecturally, but that’s another discussion).

The question you should be asking about cloud are the same kinds of questions I have to ask a restaurant: how are meals prepared and handled in the kitchen? How are applications isolated to prevent collateral damage? What optimization services are available? Are WAN optimization services an option? How does the cloud provider combat jitter? How do you replicate application access control processes in the cloud environment? What infrastructure services can I provision (if not replicate) in the cloud environment?

I’ve recently eaten at a number of restaurants successfully (i.e. without ending up sick for weeks). The key was always asking the right questions – asking about isolation techniques and shared services; asking about the tools used and the processes in handling the food from preparation to delivery. The key to successfully deploying an application in an external (public) cloud computing environment is no different. The control you exercise is also in the decision making process; in asking the right questions in the first place; not necessarily commandeering the kitchen.

Don’t think that sticking to private cloud computing alleviates the need to ask and answer those questions. The control you exercise in your private cloud implementation is as vital to your long-term success as that of the control exercised over public cloud computing. Just as I examine the ingredient list on every product I might eat – even if it’s labeled “gluten-free” – so must you examine the infrastructure ingredients necessary for each application you want to deploy in a cloud environment. The questions still need to be asked, because it isn’t just a matter of virtualizing an application and sticking a self-service layer over it. There are myriad network and application network components that make up an “application” and it those services that must also considered when posing the question “Is this application right for ‘the cloud’” whether private or public.

So like a Celiac, the health (security, performance and availability) of the applications you manage to support the business is ultimately up to you and you alone. You need to take control of the processes and ensure that you’re asking the right questions before deploying an application in any environment. See, control isn’t necessarily the same thing as “do it yourself.” Public cloud computing can be the right answer – but only if you’ve asked the right questions in the first place. 

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  You can learn more about Celiac’s Disease (also commonly called Celiac Sprue) by visiting the Celiac Sprue Association.

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