What’s that Cloud?
Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that's almost in shape of a camel?
Polonius: By th' mass, and 'tis like a camel, indeed.
Hamlet: Methinks it is like a weasel.
Polonius: It is backed like a weasel.
Hamlet: Or like a whale.
Polonius: Very like a whale.
What is cloud computing? With IT vendors now looking to dress their every offering in cloud terminology, there’s a danger that cloud means pretty much everything – and hence pretty much nothing.
This all contributes to the “trough of disillusionment” that Gartner describe as an inevitable part of the ‘hype cycle’ associated with new technologies. We begin with soaring and often ill-founded expectations; as reality breaks in there is an equally rapid deflection of hopes and expectations; and then – and only then - there follows a more measured realisation of real benefits.
Where are we now on this hype cycle? Well, the last time I looked, Gartner had identified more than three dozen elements within “cloud computing” as a whole and plotted all these elements at different points in the cycle. If you count virtualisation as a cloud technology (which Gartner do) then the university sector has already realised major benefits, and many universities are also now utilising cloud e-mail services, certainly for students, and increasingly for staff.
Yet there’s a strong feeling that alongside these successes there’s a great deal more still to be gained from cloud technologies and services – but how and where is not entirely clear. Maybe this is because we’re always tempted to start with the technology – “how can we benefit from cloud” – rather than considering (a) what can improve our user experience, and (b) what can mitigate our costs and our risks
– and then seeing if cloud is part of the answer and, if so, what form of cloud or cloud service.
Answering these questions requires a good understanding of what drives cost and risk in the organisation. How much of the cost of your IT provision is people cost? How much does the power cost and is there adequate supply for future needs? And (tricky one this) how would you cost the footprint on campus of your server rooms? Answers will vary greatly. Some campuses have space and power to spare, and as a result their conclusions on how to benefit from cloud technologies may differ greatly from those with city centre constraints.
But across all institutions I suspect people will always be the single biggest expense, and also one of the greatest risks. Procuring storage or compute capacity from the cloud won’t mitigate this cost or risk. Procuring services from suppliers whose services take advantage of, and pass on, the benefits of cloud economies of scale, may be part of the solution.
Stephen Butcher is CEO at Eduserv - www.eduserv.org.uk