American View: The cloud is just someone else’s computer

There was a time when a clever IT boffin could deflect an executive’s unwanted inquiry by pointing out the nearest window and exclaiming: “You asked which cloud your data was stored on, yeah? It’s that one.” The boffin then beat a hasty retreat back to her locked server room while her incredulous boss strained to try to make out his home directory in the cumulonimbus.

It was just a lark at first. Then a certain publisher of PC operating systems launched its “To the Cloud!” adverts and the joke wore painfully thin. These days, just saying “cloud” around a technologist is likely to induce a migraine. The cloud is a breathtaking mystery to most users, thanks to cloying marketing copy that’s made it synonymous with magic. Your data isn’t limited to plain old computers anymore (the adverts tell us) – instead, your data rockets around the world’s ley-lines in a cosmic quantum thingy (or something equally ludicrous). It’s all silliness.

Please repeat after me: “The cloud is just someone else’s computer.” That’s all. Buying cloud services just means that you’re paying someone else to host your stuff on their servers instead of having your own staff host your stuff on your own servers. There’s no magic involved.

It’s a bit easier to visualise if you think of your applications and data as your own personal auto and think of the data centre as a garage. Using traditional data centre services is like parking your car at home. If your garage is large enough to handle several cars, and they can change spots based on who’s driving what, then you have yourself a private cloud. If, instead, you have a paid driver park your car at someone else’s garage across town, you’ve engaged a cloud provider. It’s a crude analogy, but it works well because it inspires normal people to start getting cynical.

When your park your car at your own house, you know that you’re responsible for securing the doors to keep thieves out. Your car is only as safe as you choose to make it, based on how much time, money, and attention you’re willing to invest in protecting it – and how badly the local thieves want it. That’s all easy to understand.

When you have someone else park your car for you somewhere else, certain questions naturally arise: will my car always be available when I need it? Will my provider be as diligent at keeping thieves out? Might my provider park my car in another country where the rules are different? Will my driver be as diligent as I am at driving? Am I really saving money by paying someone else to do this for me? Can I afford to completely do away with my own garage? How much risk am I willing to accept?

When your CIO and CISO next come to fisticuffs over whether or not to “move to the cloud”, these are exactly the questions that they’re usually fighting over. CIOs generally want better performance at lower cost, while CISOs want to minimise the opportunities for baddies to swipe the company’s crown jewels. Both positions are valid. Ultimately, it’s up to the man or woman at the top to decide the issue, and senior executives usually hedge their bets: they choose a little of each, blend a little private cloud with some rented cloud and call the compromise a hybrid cloud solution.

I suspect this is because CEOs always get a private parking space at the office to go with the ones they have at home, but that could be a complete coincidence.

© Business Reporter 2021

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