Cloud Isn’t Just for Geeks Anymore

I recently spent two days talking to Fortune 1000 CIOs at one of those swanky Sonoran desert summits that is probably best described as speed dating for geeks. Fifteen hours of focused conversations with a cross section of CIOs reveals a lot about the state of an industry and the state of mind for IT leadership today.

Not surprisingly, cloud computing was very much on the brain — although, the topic was presented with a pronounced sigh and an unsubtle roll of the eyes.

So, why the frustration? This is what I heard:

Murky definitions – Vendors are probably to blame for co-opting and convoluting the definition of cloud. Of course, it should come as no surprise: large market opportunities are like red meat to the vendor community, which sees cloud as a place for frothy growth and a lever for super-sized valuations.

But with so many vendors jockeying for position, the basic structure of what cloud represents has fractured. All you have to do is watch a Microsoft ad to appreciate the extent of this; cloud is at once everything and nothing. It’s a state of mind. Irrational exuberance – Hype and confusion have conspired to create urgency around an ambiguous thing toward an amorphous end. Perhaps it’s a result of too many conversations with passionate non-experts, but lines of business are feeling pressure to “figure out this cloud thing,” which is exactly the directive sent down to IT.

Expectations are both over- and under-stated.

CIOs said they’re in a near constant state of reactive reeducation, setting the record straight on the promise of cloud. You can blame vendors, analysts or that darn Microsoft/IBM ad, but the reality is that there’s a definite disconnect between business and IT on the topic of cloud.

One CIO paraphrased what he hears in the trenches: “This cloud thing will shave 20 percent right off the top of IT spending.”

This isn’t particularly helpful in focusing the conversation because it flatly ignores the cost and complexity of the cloud transformation and fails to acknowledge what may be the most strategic driver for cloud: Business agility.

Misplaced fears – There’s a Chicken Little quality to the fear surrounding cloud. Of course, fear is often a direct descendent of confusion. If you think about it, Chicken Little got his tail feathers in a twist because he didn’t understand the properties of the sky.

Fear has similar origins in the cloud.

In some circumstances, there are legitimate performance and policy reasons why workloads are not well-suited to a cloud environment, whether they’re running internally or externally. But it many cases, fear is the byproduct of confusion, politics and protectionist tendencies.

Legacy architectures – Yesterday’s applications and infrastructure are not always easily adapted to an elastic, on-demand computing model. The promise of cloud is contingent upon sorting this out, which is no small feat.

You can imagine why glib, platitudinous cloud claims raise the hackles of IT leaders who must first sort through layers and layers of technology acquired over multiple generations of architectures to get their house in order before they dive headlong into cloud.

Process maturity – The greatest threat to cloud readiness is process and organizational maturity.

Here’s an exercise to put this in perspective: Imagine the way you deliver IT today scaled by a factor of 10X, and is accelerated from months and weeks to minutes and seconds. That’s what it feels like to manage a cloud.

“Amazon can do it. Why can’t you?” is the sentiment directed at so many IT organizations today. But what this fails to acknowledge is that most IT organizations can’t begin to match Amazon’s level of sophistication, process maturity and automation.

Amazon’s cloud implementation is truly something to behold. It should be the model and aspiration for IT delivery models of the future. But to paraphrase former U.S. vice presidential candidate (Ret.) Admiral James Stockdale: “I know Amazon. I’ve worked with Amazon. IT, you’re no Amazon.”

That’s why so many CIOs are eager to outsource everything that isn’t nailed down and core to the business. The best ones are a remarkably self-aware bunch, fully cognizant of their organizational limitations, liabilities and what really matters to the business. This bodes well for the future of public and managed hosted cloud models in all incarnations: SaaS, PaaS and IaaS.

So, what’s the lesson from this cosmic conversation in the desert?

Cloud is the future, but the time frames are uncertain. I suppose William Gibson was right: “The future is here today — it’s just unevenly distributed.”

Jake Sorofman is chief marketing officer at rPath, a “service factory for on-demand IT.” Jake is a seasoned software marketing executive with a strong product strategy and communications background. Previously, he was SVP of marketing and business development for JustSystems, the largest ISV in Japan and a leader in XML technologies. Before that, Jake was VP of product marketing with Mercury Interactive (now part of HP Software). Before Mercury, Jake led marketing for two WebSphere products at IBM Software Group. Jake has a BA from University of New Hampshire and an MBA from the McCallum Graduate School of Business at Bentley College, where he was an American Marketing Association George Hay Brown Scholar.