Is That Cloud Turning Into A Minefield?

One of the biggest buzzwords on the Internet has to be cloud computing and how everything is heading to the cloud. With services like Amazon’s EC2/S3, Google Docs and their AppEngine along with some smaller; but growing, competitors like Zoho this idea of using applications running on some benign corporation server farm is gaining a foothold. It doesn’t bother the new accolades of the church of the cloud that at the root of it all someone else has complete control over their data. For them the ability of being able to use barely adequate software within a single threaded browser is a fair trade for being able to use something for nothing.

As much as we might all want to be enveloped in that warm glow of kombaya that is being exuded by the church of the cloud everyone is missing one of the most basic laws of mankind – everything has a price. Just because we surround this cloud computing with an acronym alphabet soup of different licences it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out that even with the ever decreasing costs of storage and acquisition it doesn’t change the fact that nothing in this world is ever done for free. At some point there are shareholders, there are CEOs with their overblown pay packages and then there are the people who keep the cloud afloat to begin with. They all need to get paid.

So how is this done?

How do people get paid; overblown pay packages or not?

Well the most tried and true method; and the one that landed Microsoft in so much hot water both legally and with consumer backlash, is by locking in your customers to specific vendors. This is the question that both Tim Bray and Dare Obasanjo raised in separate posts today on their individual blogs. Tim started it of with a simple question about what he considers the big issue of cloud computing

Big Issue · I mean a really big issue: if cloud computing is going to take off, it absolutely, totally, must be lockin-free. What that means if that I’m deploying my app on Vendor X’s platform, there have to be other vendors Y and Z such that I can pull my app and its data off X and it’ll all run with minimal tweaks on either Y or Z.

In a day and age where we are all looking to reduce our computing costs this idea of free software that makes our data available from anywhere in the world that has a high speed connection and a laptop with a browser is deeply enticing. Whether it be on a personal level for those living a digital nomad lifestyle right through to corporations looking to reduce their massive IT budgets this cloud computing appears to be an answer made in heaven.

As enticing as the ease of entry might appear one has to wonder how far down the road the bean counters are looking. What happens if for whatever reason at some point in the future you; or your company, wants to change cloud computing vendors? Just how far have the tendrils of your current provider weaved themselves into your corporate infrastructure? Just how badly locked in are you to that once seemingly benign cloud service that promised you the moon and stars?

This is the question that Dare asked in his post as well today

So let’s say your organization wants to move from a cloud based office suite like Google Apps for Business to Zoho. The first question you have to ask yourself is whether it is possible to extract all of your organization’s data from one service and import itwithout data loss into another. For business documents this should be straightforward thanks to standards like ODF and OOXML. However there are points to consider such as whether there is an automated way to perform such bulk imports and exports or whether individuals have to manually export and/or import their online documents to these standard formats. Thus the second question is how expensive it is for your organization to move the data. The cost includes everything from the potential organizational downtime to account for switching services to the actual IT department cost of moving all the data. At this point, you then have to weigh the impact of all the links and references to your organization’s data that will be broken by your switch. I don’t just mean links to documents returning 404 because you have switched from being hosted at google.com to zoho.com but more insidious problems like the broken experience of anyone who is using the calendar or document sharing feature of the service to give specific people access to their data. Also you have to ensure that email that is sent to your organization after the switch goes to the right place. Making this aspect of the transition smooth will likely be the most difficult part of the migration since it requires more control over application resources than application service providers typically give their customers. Finally, you will have to evaluate which features you will lose by switching applications and ensure that none of them is mission critical to your business.

It is the fact that as much as we have heralded things like APIs as being the greatest thing since sliced bread when it comes to cloud computing they suck. They suck because there is absolutely no standardization between the various cloud computing services already in business; and it is bound to get worse as more companies try to join this newest gravy train. Not only that but there is no commonality between the various platforms these services may use. Some use Ruby on Rails, some use Django which in turn may use totally divergent database base formats like SQL Server, MySQL or PostgreSQL.

In his post Dare points to a comment that Dewitt Clinton of Google left on Tim Bray’s post where Dewitt said

… the way Amazon and Google (and everyone else in this space) seem to be trying to compete is by offering the best value, in terms of reliability (uptime, replication) and performance (data locality, latency, etc) and monitoring and management tools. Which is as it should be.

Dare’s reply to this was

Although Dewitt is correct that Google and Amazon are not explicitly trying to lock-in customers to their platform, the fact is that today if a customer has heavily invested in either platform then there isn’t a straightforward way for customers to extricate themselves from the platform and switch to another vendor. In addition there is not a competitive marketplace of vendors providing standard/interoperable platforms as there are with email hosting or Web hosting providers.

As long as these conditions remain the same, it may be that lock-in is too strong a word describe the situation but it is clear that the options facing adopters of cloud computing platforms aren’t great when it comes to vendor choice.

Either way we look at this we are heading into a minefield and while it might not blow up in our faces today it will eventually if we don’t watch where we are putting our feet as we move forward.