Cloud risks and organizational culture

I’ve been working on a note about Amazon EC2, and pondering how different the Web operations culture of Silicon Valley is from that of the typical enterprise IT organization.

Silicon Valley’s prevailing Ops culture is about speed. There’s a desperate sense of urgency that seems to prevail there, a relentless expectation that you can be the Next Big Thing, if only you can get there fast enough. Or, alternatively, you are the Current Big Thing, and it is all you can do to keep up with your growth, or at least not have the Out Of Resources truck run right over you.

Enterprise IT culture tends to be about risk mitigation. It is about taking your time, being thorough, and making the right decisions and ensuring that nothing bad happens as the result of them.

To techgeeks at start-ups in the Valley (and I mean absolutely no disparagement by this, as I was one, and perhaps still would be, if I hadn’t become an analyst), the promise and usefulness of cloud computing is obvious. The question is not if; it is when — when can I buy a cloud that has the particular features I need to make my life easier? But: Simplify my architecture? Solve my scaling problems and improve my availability? Give me infrastructure the instant I need it, and charge me only when I get it? I want it right now. I wanted it yesterday, I wanted it last year. Got a couple of problems? Hey, everyone makes mistakes; just don’t make them twice. If I’d done it myself, I’d have made mistakes too; anyone would have. We all know this is hard. No SLA? Just fix it as quickly as you can, and let me know what went wrong. It’s not like I’m expecting you to go to Tahiti while my infrastructure burns; I know you’ll try your best. Sure, it’s risky, but heck, my whole business is a risk! No guts, no glory!

Your typical enterprise IT guy is struck aghast by that attitude. He does not have the problem of waking up one morning and discovering that his sleepy little Facebook app has suddenly gotten the attention of teenyboppers world-wide and now he needs a few hundred or a few thousand servers right this minute, while he prays that his application actually scales in a somewhat linear fashion. He’s not dealing with technology he’s built himself that might or might not work. He isn’t pushing the limits and having to call the vendor to report an obscure bug in the operating system. He isn’t being asked to justify his spending to the board of directors. He lives in a world of known things — budgets worked out a year in advance, relatively predictable customer growth, structured application development cycles stretched out over months, technology solutions that are thoroughly supported by vendors. And so he wants to try to avoid introducing unknowns and risks into his environment.

Despite eight years at Gartner, advising clients that are mostly fairly conservative in their technology decisions, I still find myself wanting to think in early-adopter mode. In trying to write for our clients, I’m finding it hard to shift from that mode. It’s not that I’m not skeptical about the cloud vendors (and I’m trying to be hands-on with as many platforms as I can, so I can get some first-hand understanding and a reality check). It’s that I am by nature rooted in that world that doesn’t care as much about risk. I am interested in reasonable risk versus the safest course of action.

Realistically, enterprises are going to adopt cloud infrastructure in a very different way and at a very different pace than fast-moving technology start-ups. At the moment, few enterprises are compelled towards that transformation in the way that the Web 2.0 start-ups are — their existing solutions are good enough, so what’s going to make them move? All the strengths of cloud infrastructure — massive scalability, cost-efficient variable capacity, Internet-readiness — are things that most enterprises don’t care about that much.

That’s the decision framework I’m trying to work out next.

I am actively interested in cloud infrastructure adoption stories, especially from “traditional” enterprises who have made the leap, even in an experimental way. If you’ve got an experience to share, using EC2, Joyent, Mosso, EngineYard, Terremark’s Infinistructure, etc., I’d love to hear it, either in a comment on my blog or via email at lydia dot leong at gartner dot com.

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Posted on October 29, 2008, in Infrastructure and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.

  1. Though provoking point of view and write up. Thanks. I have this enterprise cloud migration talk w/ various people daily it seems. I work for Joyent by the way. The only thing I’ve seen so far that really makes them move is money.

    I’ll drop you an email note to say hello, maybe we can compare notes.

    Kent Langley

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