Wednesday, November 5, 2008

It’s up there, in the clouds!

I am back in Simi Valley after spending a week in Boulder. The temperatures continue to remain mild across Colorado, with no sign yet of winter. Mornings can be cool but the trees still carry residual colors from the fall. The picture I have included here is of a popular walking trail where I live – and the cannels remain full as water is drained from the nearby dams in preparation for the snowfalls that will eventually arrive.

There are two cannels that flow alongside the walking trails and they date back to the era of steam, when steam trains first pushed through from the east coast. The land on which the houses were built was originally owned by Union Pacific Railway, and the cannels that spread out from the front ranges were part of a complex water-delivery system that filled the water tanks by the railway lines. The train drivers never knew how it all worked or what was involved in getting the water track-side, and they didn’t need to. But today, these original infrastructure components are still in use, but now being utilized in different ways – to deliver water to the farms of Boulder county, as well as to decorative ponds at the top of our development.

As the land around us was developed, my local community retained access to these cannels and today water is pumped up to the ponds with a network of pipes allowing gravity to supply water to common-area sprinkler systems. No matter how dry the land becomes at the height of summer, this mix of old and new infrastructure insures our walkways and parks remain green and lush!

Complex infrastructures from the past are usually not reusable. More often something better comes along, and once-dependable infrastructure is quickly abandoned, becoming nothing more than a historical footnote. When it comes to the IT industry we have shown scant interest in preserving older technologies, preferring to jump on every new technology that brings with it the promise of lower costs and improved productivity.

I have written a number of pieces this year about “cloud computing” including a posting on the topic on May 12th, ’08 that I called “The Clouds in Spain” where I referred to a presentation given earlier in the year by Martin Fink, Senior VP and General Manager of HP’s Business Critical Server organization. Martin talked about the move from monolithic to polymorphic computing, a reference to what we could expect from future cloud computing configurations. By way of explanation of what he meant, Martin then proposed “what if you went to the store and you purchased a generic vehicle … (and) every time you go out, your vehicle morphs to your need at the specific moment. This is the power of polymorphism.” And I remembered this when I came across a couple of recent publications as I was writing my recent article for the Tandemworld electronic newsletter – http://www.tandemworld.net/

InformationWeek has a white paper on this topic “A Walk In The Clouds: Cloud Computing Analytics Report” that can be downloaded from http://www.cloudcomputing.informationweek.com/?cid=nl_wp_bi_IKRnwsl110408 . This white paper contains a number of observations on how we have reached the point where cloud computing looks an attractive option, and it starts out by recalling the good old days! “Consider that many CIOs remember when everyone sat behind dumb terminals and connected to all-omniscient mainframes … Users didn't care about operating systems or hardware, just the application.” It then goes on to suggest how “many enterprise users possess two or three different devices, and frustration is rampant as they attempt to synchronize information across disparate form factors and OSes. They just want to get to the applications and data they need, when they need them … Those old days are looking pretty good.”

It seems to me that over-exposure to the infrastructure may be the issue!

In his Newsweek column of November 10th, ’08 “Technology Shifts”, columnist Daniel Lyons comes up with perhaps one of the simplest descriptions of cloud computing I have seen of late. “The basic idea is simple enough. Instead of storing your data on your PC, you store it on a server on the Internet. You don’t know, or care, where that server is located. Your data might, in fact, be scattered across a bunch of different servers. It’s just all up in the sky someplace (hence the name ‘cloud’).”

As I read the complete article, I was reminded of how complex we have made IT and how difficult it has become to address basic business issues with simple and elegant solutions. Have we layered so much infrastructure that addressing pressing business issues in any reasonable timeframe has become next to impossible? And is this now stifling any chance we may have had of remaining innovative?

But what about grid computing? On-demand computing? Software as a Service? Isn’t cloud computing just another competing model? Not exactly – as the InformationWeek white paper goes on to explain. “A few years ago it seemed grid computing, where resources could be allocated on the fly and IT managers needn't worry about capacity, might save us. Grid computing never quite materialized, however, and vendors began to develop software as a service offerings that promoted the idea of applications delivered on demand, without the need to manage and deploy infrastructure … Now, SaaS and grid computing have evolved and coalesced with concepts like virtualization, collocation, and outsourced Web hosting to form a concept called ‘cloud computing.’”

Looks more like an evolutionary step and an attempt at putting some distance between us and the infrastructure we’ve never been all that keen about!

There’s rarely something really brand new or extraordinary, technology-wise, appearing on our IT landscape. It’s not as if we are throwing away generations of technology and replacing it with something totally new. As Dr Don Norman, of Northwestern University, wrote on his web site recently, “Our technology is cumulative, each new one adding to the ones previously acquired … The automobile is a continual source of maintenance. And of course our electronic gadgets continually require attention. I must constantly update my virus checker, install software updates, reboot the computer, the cable modem box, the WiFi connection and transmitter. If every device only needed attention once a year, I would still be fixing, maintaining, or adjusting something every day.”

For me there will always be a collection of key infrastructure components – we need to secure and protect our business logic and data, we need to have a standard way to describe the interfaces between the applications embracing our business logic (and as services, this seems the easiest way to me) since we are constantly upgrading and changing the applications, and we need to ensure our data is available and recoverable 24 x 7 x 365! These continue to be among the more critical infrastructure components but even within these components, there remains an evolutionary process with many basic elements being reused. At the lowest level, for instance, event monitoring and processing has changed very little from the time it first appeared.

As we see cloud computing gain broader appeal - and here I see HP on the forefront of this development and the new HP Integrity BladeSystem (including support of NonStop) a critical building block well-suited to the assembling of clouds – those tasked with putting it all together will find no lessening of their responsibilities to secure, interconnect, and make available business logic and data. Those working inside the cloud will continue to face the accumulation of more and more technology.

And these technicians will take over much of what concerns folks like Dr. Norman who concluded “all the backup equipment adds to the burden - we have to back up the backups and worry about whether they really work, and test them. I seem to spend more of my time being a mechanic and maintenance person than doing my work - or for that matter, just relaxing … Just doing things is getting harder and harder.”

Perhaps infrastructure itself is destined for the clouds – unseen by any user!

Cloud computing certainly holds out the hope of a far more flexible future where accessing information at any time from anywhere in the world becomes a lot easier to achieve. But complexity will always be with us – it’s just the nature of our industry. We may mask it, and even bury it far from sight, but it will always be with us. While it is very early days still and has yet to be embraced by the HP NonStop community, the very nature of an “always-on” cloud screams NonStop to me, and with its new found openness and ease of integration with other applications, NonStop has to be viewed very seriously.

Just as cannels were dug to pipe water to where state-of-the-art steam trains needed it, will we become, just as those steam train drivers of yesterday, unaware of the infrastructure deployed in support of our applications? And will this free us to become more innovative in our approach to problem solving?

For the most part, I expect much of what we have today will just sink back into the landscape but then again, I have to believe some of it will find a new use and be revisited in ways we had never thought of – up there, in the sky somewhere! Among the clouds!

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