In the Wheelhouse: Reality Check for the Cloud

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You can't look online these days without reading about cloud computing or a variant term like Platform as a Service (PaaS), Software as a Service (SaaS), or Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS). I liked it best when cloud computing was called "outsourcing."


Language is a beautiful thing. I've always had a fascination with how language sells things. The ability to blur perceptions with language is a true art form. For instance, it's much easier for a town to construct a "correctional facility" than a "prison." It just sounds better. Correctional facility doesn't mean anything specific. Those two words taken literally describe nothing more than a place where corrective action is taken. Think of the word "prison." The idea of having a prison constructed in your neighborhood automatically brings thoughts of crime, inmates, bars, barbed wire, and armed guards. Then you have to wonder about the property value of your home.


Getting fired is a thing of the past now too. Companies now engage in rightsizing, downsizing, negative employee retention, and even normal involuntary attrition. Normal involuntary attrition? Say it out loud and feel the ridiculousness just roll off your tongue. Employees are now furloughed, not fired or canned. Instead of being given their walking papers, employees may be offered a career alternative enhancement program. It doesn't sound so bad when the meaning and sense of feeling is hidden behind this wonderfully constructed language.


It's everywhere. Car companies turned our dashboards into instrument panels. Bottled water companies want us to hydrate ourselves with designer fluid. A complimentary communal breakfast at a hotel sounds far less tacky than free breakfast buffet.


Then we have "cloud."


The definition of cloud computing is so abstract and so void of definition that it almost lacks the ability to be attacked in an argument. It evolves often enough to be considered evasive. The best basic definition I've heard is that cloud generally means the Internet, which companies provide a service through. This is very broad by design. It doesn't mean that cloud computing is good or bad. It means that it's a very, very broad definition.


Plenty of people take the viewpoint that the traditional IT department will be a thing of the past, posting content heavily focused on driving cloud adoption while making crystal-ball predictions about how business can thrive without the overhead of local IT staff, servers, rules, restrictions, and policy. With technology being ever so advancing yet so cyclical, it's almost like we heard this story before.


The concept of hiring another company to provide a service is nothing new. Purchasing any service depends on a number of factors. Perhaps you have a company provide waste disposal services (formerly garbage collection, by the way) for shredding and removal of office documents. Given the emphasis on privacy and security in recent years, the waste removal company should be properly certified to provide this service, such as organizations like the National Association of Information Destruction (NAID), which is a watchdog of the shredding industry, ensuring that certified companies perform employee background checks and drug testing and that those employees sign nondisclosure agreements. NAID audits certified companies regularly to ensure shredded documents are not readable.


The onus is, of course, on the customer to ensure their physical documents are securely destroyed by employing a reputable and certified company to provide the service.


The same goes for cloud computing.


If you read the terms of service for many cloud vendors, you'll find that many liabilities lie with the customer, not the vendor.


Take backup, recovery, and high availability for instance. Don't assume that the low default sticker price ensures that your data is being backed up or is highly available. In case of disaster, what's the recovery time? Where are you on the cloud host's priority list? Having a high availability configuration (if there's one available) will most likely require you to pay a premium. The same goes for offsite backup storage. Do you require that your data goes to tape and is available for 5, 7, or 10 years? Is the restore procedure cost covered under your contract or is that a per-incident cost? Does the cloud vendor even have a recovery option in case you deleted an important file?


Privacy of data is another major concern. Your data may be encrypted on cloud vendor systems, but is it your encryption key or the vendor's? Are you comfortable with a vendor having the encryption key? Many questions need to be asked when entertaining putting any data in the cloud.


Even your ability to litigate may be challenged in the fine print of a contract or in the cloud vendor's terms of service.


Most recently for example, the file-sharing and storage service DropBox has changed its terms of service to ensure customers don't file class action lawsuits against them. The service states the following:


We Both Agree To Arbitrate. You and Dropbox agree to resolve any claims relating to these Terms or the Services through final and binding arbitration, except as set forth under Exceptions to Agreement to Arbitrate below.

No Class Actions. You may only resolve disputes with us on an individual basis, and may not bring a claim as a plaintiff or a class member in a class, consolidated, or representative action. Class arbitrations, class actions, private attorney general actions, and consolidation with other arbitrations aren't allowed.


In plain English, I think it means you're not allowed to sue them for any reason. Tough.


The perception of cost difference is another factor that may make sense in some cases but not in others. The cost savings is usually pitched as a reduction in local IT personnel. In many cases, even though servers are hosted in the cloud, you still may need staff to do some of the technical and user liaison work.


My own personal conversation with a cloud vendor reseller some months back was laughable at the time and still is in retrospect. They heard we were running IBM Notes (formerly Lotus Notes) and the territory sales wolf was at my door wanting a meeting.


I won't name the vendor here, but they're a prominent "migrate off Notes" cloud company offering a very low monthly per user charge.


Now, the fact that I tacked IBM Domino on to my existing IBM i and Power Systems infrastructure with absolutely zero additional hardware investment for a few hundred users means I had excess capacity, so there's no hardware cost in my book. If I paid for the hardware/OS strictly for Domino, then I'd add that to the equation, but it's been many years since the Dedicated Server for Domino. Systems are widely integrated now in order to maximize that investment. In order to be fair to the salesman in our cost comparison, I considered my hardware/OS was 5% of the cost of my IBM i and Power infrastructure (averaged over five years including purchase price). I figured Domino was only 5% of what that server does. I also included 10% of my salary before taxes because I do very little "administration" of my Domino server, even though I wouldn't be losing my job if I outsourced our mail and Domino applications. I added both costs anyway.


We went back and forth with emails over the course of a few days. This wolf was eager and hungry at the start…until it was determined that he didn't know a thing about how much Notes actually cost on a yearly basis (the maintenance is actually quite low for Collaboration Express licensing) and he couldn't put up a single comparative argument why his solution was better than mine. It's almost as if he was hoping I was as ignorant about my technical environment and choice of products as he was. He certainly had no idea what the cost of Notes/Domino was, only that it was "waaaaaay more expensive" than his solution.


Over five years, his cloud solution (with the addition of other premium-cost cloud items that Domino does out of the box) and implementation/services would cost about 2.5 (Two. Point. Five.) times higher than what I'd be paying IBM for Notes/Domino on premises. The financial argument was 100% false.


If you're in an IT department, you'd best be investigating these costs for yourself. Someone will eventually challenge why you haven't moved everything to the cloud already. For many parts of your environment, I bet it would be far too expensive to do so. Those parts that make sense to move to the cloud should best be determined via a strong vetting process. Make sure the vendor's offerings align with your business.

Our community runs IBM i on Power Systems because it's arguably the most cost-effective platform combination out there.


IBM i on Power Systems gets my company results. Cost-effective, secure, and scalable results.