Think you know about the cloud? Top industry vendors and influencers discuss critical cloud issues

Did you know that A3 Communications organises industry events? We’re busy working on our next Technology Live! one right now: a highly interactive tech demo day that brings together a handful of vendors with the industry’s most technical writers and influencers.

We also run IT Question Time (ITQT): a chance for press, bloggers and analysts to grill vendors on key technologies, future trends and pain points that need to be addressed. The spokespeople aren’t given the questions in advance, so they’re really put through their paces. Not for the faint-hearted!

Our most recent ITQT took place in London last year. We’d love to give you a flavour of what was discussed: it’s a great way to see what’s on the minds of IT journalists, bloggers and analysts. So here’s a taster of the day…

Is the cloud market shaped by the way we define it? Just one of the key questions put to our panel of vendors, which this time included:

•    Databarracks solutions architect, Mark Thomas
•    SolidFire senior director, Martin Cooper
•    Virtual Instruments EMEA director of services and presales, Nicholas Dimotakis and then EMEA marketing director Chris James

The event also touched on the true cost of cloud storage, why customers choose the cloud and the pitfalls of outsourcing.  

So why are we still squabbling about what cloud means, nearly ten years after the concept of cloud computing first came to the fore? And could defining cloud really make a difference?

It starts, explains panel moderator analyst Tony Lock of Freeform Dynamics with realising that there are a staggering 97 different definitions of cloud. And that’s partly because cloud doesn’t just mean private cloud storage for example – blogger Enrico Signoretti of Juku.IT suggests it can refer to many types of cloud: take for example Dropbox, Salesforce and Amazon. Or even just CRM – they all do different things.  

This means there’s always a lot of discussion around what people really mean when they’re talking about cloud. The US National Institute for Standards and Technology took years (and 15 drafts) to come up with its very wordy definition, formulated about five years ago, but even so, Lock says it’s not enough. “It’s well known to cloud experts,” he says “but outside the narrow world of cloud, it’s not known. Other people don’t read standards papers,” adds Lock.

And it’s not just a question of definition. Virtual Instruments’ Chris James maintains that the widely-accepted concepts of public, private and hybrid are too vague. He thinks the industry should adopt the Gartner approach to definition. He likes the way Gartner defines services based around their importance to an organisation. “Gartner has coined the phrase ‘Let’s say you’re BMW.’ You have supply chain in SAP running manufacturing process that’s critical to your system. The crucial question is whether it gives competitive advantage or not.” So to James, looking at how valuable cloud is to the customer will help to define it.

SolidFire’s Martin Cooper thinks the industry should avoid being too simplistic when it defines cloud: cloud is multifaceted and supports an incredibly wide range of services. “Cloud is the internet with a service that sits on it,” he says. “We shouldn’t be trying to put it under one umbrella.”

There’s no doubt that customers are adopting cloud in great numbers but, asks Lock, it’s important to work out why. Databarracks’ Mark Thomas suggests that many organisations opt for this path in an attempt to save money: “But is it always about cost?” he asks.

Not according to Lock, who says that Freeform Dynamics research shows this is not the case: “It’s about flexibility or, for smaller companies, it’s the ability to do things they wouldn’t be able to do without the cloud.”  

And while Signoretti asks whether it’s still ultimately about saving money, Lock disagrees. “Cloud companies say it’s about reducing costs. But ask them where those cost savings come from and they say in reducing management. Management costs don’t disappear if you do something in the cloud. It’s true that head count can be reduced but those people are going somewhere and what generally happens is that there’s an internal reorganisation and they’re moved to an external service provider.”

Thomas agrees with Lock’s argument and reminds the panel that moving to the cloud isn’t a cure-all. “If you have a terrible IT department, outsourcing isn’t one of the ways to solve the problem. You can’t hope to achieve anything by throwing something over the wall to a service provider.” Or, to put it another way, Cooper says: “People think that moving to the cloud is throwing pixie dust at the problem – it’s not.”

Independent blogger and consultant Chris Evans of Langton Blue points out another cost in the shift towards the cloud: “You can reassign people to new areas but they need to learn new skills: a security guy told to do networking, storage or something else will demand all the training.”

All this makes it harder to pinpoint the true cost, and calculate the return on investment, when moving to the cloud. It’s not just the cost difference between cloud and on-premise storage, but all the additional, often hidden, factors: the training, change in business practice and relationships with service providers.

But cost and other motivations for moving to the cloud aside, once an organisation is using the cloud what’s the best way to measure how it’s working? How can you tell you’re getting what you need? Surely service level agreements are the perfect way to tell if your cloud provider is performing? Chris James points out that it isn’t always that straightforward. “SLAs are often about availability but say nothing about performance,” he explains. “How should that performance be measured?” Cloud services could be available but still not delivering at an appropriate level.

Nicholas Dimotakis of Virtual Instruments endorses this view.  “No-one is able to provide guarantees all across the stack. For the customer to be interested in true SLAs they need some guarantees all the way up.”

This is going to remain a big stumbling block for companies looking to use cloud for their primary storage: many uncertainties lie ahead in the move from on-premise to cloud services and it’s not always easy to measure where success lies.

Look out for our next blog posts that cover more of the ITQT discussions – and get in touch if you’re interested in coming to the next one.

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