When asked to write a column with an ambitious title like “The future of the cloud”, it is a good idea to look first at where cloud is at the moment and to realise that it is still very early days. Today, of the $2.7 trillion that global business spends annually on IT, just 4.8 per cent is spent on cloud computing.
The cloud’s penetration of the world of business is considerably less than its penetration of our daily lives. As consumers we get most of our news, information and increasingly entertainment through cloud services. In fact, the consumer industry has become the major driver of IT innovation. Many years ago, IT innovation was largely driven by defence spending, later by space exploration and then, for many years, the best place to see new innovative products in action, such as colour laptops, projectors and colour printers, was inside the offices of large enterprises.
How different things are now. The largest screens with the highest resolutions, the fastest network connections, “premium” tablets and the best connected mobiles are probably the ones you use at home. Even in large data centres, innovation is now largely driven by consumer-oriented organisations, such as Facebook, with its open computer server design initiative or Google with its MapReduce approach to making sense of very large sets of information. Many enterprises are still getting used to the idea that they are no longer in the driving seat. Where in the past they typically expected vendors to come running to deliver exactly what they asked for, they now need to figure out how standard offerings based on consumer-facing innovations can be used inside their business.
Ironically, uncertainty about the future is one of the main reasons for using the cloud
The cloud is not the only consumer-driven innovation businesses need to make sense of. It is joined by a nexus of new digital forces, including the social, mobile and information, or big data, forces. These offer truly new capabilities when combined. For example, businesses can now connect more directly with their customers using social and mobile technology. This provides huge amounts of customer information that can be analysed to enable businesses to communicate in a more relevant and useful way – a change facilitated by the use of software and IT infrastructure in the cloud.
Another element shaping the future of the cloud is the increasing importance of sharing content and knowledge across organisations. The value of using cloud services, such as Google Maps and LinkedIn, comes from sharing more information (on roads, traffic, people, skills) than individual companies could ever hope to collect or keep up to date in their own internal systems. For many years businesses sought efficiencies and gained competitive advantage by integrating and co-ordinating their internal processes better. Now we see increasingly that, driven by big data, future efficiencies lie in optimising processes across multiple organisations. This leads to “social collaboration networks” between businesses, similar to what a cloud application like Facebook did for individuals.
However, by saying that the cloud is especially valuable for doing things that were not possible before, or at least not practicable or affordable, we make predicting the future of the cloud a lot harder. Ironically, uncertainty about the future is also one of the main reasons for using the cloud. When a business is uncertain whether one thousand or one million customers will watch its latest webcast or play its latest game, the elasticity of the cloud makes it an ideal platform because a business can rapidly scale up its IT capacity to meet its needs at the time and then scale it back when it is no longer required.
Similarly, when organisations are uncertain whether a new software implementation will be a tremendous success (leading to all divisions in all countries using the whole platform on a daily basis) or a modest failure (leading to a few divisions using some parts of the software in a couple of countries), it is better not to invest up-front but to “pay as you go”. An example of a company using this is game provider Zynga, which uses cloud computing extensively when launching new games, but then brings established games back in-house when many of the uncertainties about usage and capacity requirements have been resolved. It is this agility, the ability to “turn on a sixpence”, not cost-savings, that is the main driver for the cloud’s use by businesses today and it is likely to remain an important driver in future.
Using the cloud should not be a goal in itself: it should be a means of achieving specific benefits. As a result, business cloud strategies, today and in the future, must be driven by higher-level objectives, such as reducing lead times or improving customer experience by delivering core services through the cloud. Cloud adoption should not be driven by artificial IT metrics, such as aiming to have a certain percentage of applications running in the cloud by 2015. Selecting projects potentially suitable for the cloud is a question of weighing the benefits against the risks. If the risks of using the cloud are very high and the benefits relatively low – for instance, when migrating stable and predictable yet crucial workloads that already run efficiently internally – it may be something to avoid.
Conversely, if benefits are high and risks low, as for example in big data modelling and analytics where tens of thousands of processors run for short periods to simulate or predict customer behaviour, using the cloud may be a “no-brainer”, allowing a business to pay only for what it needs, and to avoid overheads and maintenance during times when this capability is not required.
Risk, however, is not a constant. Just as Japanese manufacturers pursuing just-in-time and Lean manufacturing concepts refused to accept that the changeover time between products on a production line was a constant and so actively worked to reduce them, consumers and cloud providers should work on reducing the risks, both real and perceived, associated with cloud computing. There are many ways to do this.
Concerns about the security of information held in the cloud can be allayed by applying technologies, such as encryption or by agreeing to more transparency about the physical location in which data is stored. It is also important to realise that confidence in the cloud will grow naturally as users and providers gain more experience. Passengers of the first airlines needed to be quite brave as there was no track record that warranted trust in pilots and their equipment.
Trust increased as the industry learned from initial disasters and actively improved service – you can also expect to see both disasters and subsequent improvements with the cloud. Not all the cloud will be as regulated as the airline business, but some cloud services could well be more regulated than they are today, for example in privacy-sensitive areas like healthcare.
The cloud changes attitudes to IT more than it changes IT itself. The concept of delivery “as a service”, so central to cloud computing, will lead to IT organisation acting as an intermediary within business where managing the consumption of external cloud services will be as important as managing the delivery of internal services – leading to a future that is facilitated by, but not determined by, the cloud.
Gartner research director Gregor Petri specialises in cloud computing, hosting, data centres and communications service provider strategies.