Mike Daconta

COMMENTARY

It's time to burst the cloud's hype bubble

Agencies are rushing into an unfinished technology

Michael Daconta (mdaconta@acceleratedim.com) is the chief technology officer of Accelerated Information Management and the former metadata program manager for the Homeland Security Department. His latest book is, “Information as Product: How to Deliver the Right Information to the Right Person at the Right Time.”

As cloud computing has become the silver bullet du jour, we suddenly are faced with two simultaneous and equally dangerous phenomena: “Everything is Cloud” and its evil twin, “Cloud is Everything.” 

The solution to both of these phenomena is to take a lesson from the old Rolling Stones song and kick some initiatives and concepts off of the cloud.

First, let’s address the notion that Everything is Cloud, or, as a recent GCN article put it, “agencies are becoming more cloudlike.” I recently read an article on the “Cancer Knowledge Cloud” sponsored by the National Cancer Institute. It is a grid computing initiative called caBIG, rebranded as a cloud offering. 


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I first heard of caBIG in 2005 when I was at the Homeland Security Department. The problem is that the standards, interfaces and specifications for grid computing, developed during the past five-plus years, are different from the set of standards, interfaces and specifications for cloud computing. So in reality, grid computing is not cloud computing unless you squint really hard. 

Try comparing the caBig and caGrid application programming interfaces to Amazon Web Services offerings, and you will find it difficult to know where to begin. Repeat the exercise with Windows Azure or Google AppEngine, and you will likely have the same results. I see this Everything is Cloud or cloudlike response from agencies as a natural reaction to misguided pressure to prematurely leap to unfinished technology. After all, if you ask a stupid question…

Now, let’s examine the other side of the coin. I recently viewed, with slack-jawed amazement, an Army Leader Training video in which the cloud saved the day with instantaneous sharing, app store simplicity and precisely relevant data raining down from the cloud like manna from heaven.

Such naiveté is just downright dangerous. It is high time to burst this hype bubble with a cold splash of reality, which will reside in those devilish details.

For the federal government, much of this difficult, painstaking work has been handed off to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which recently announced the Standards Acceleration to Jumpstart Adoption of Cloud Computing initiative. In a nutshell, NIST will set up a Web portal, post existing specifications, create or encourage reference implementations, and post gaps in specifications that the community needs to fill with new specifications. All those specifications are then thrown over the wall to standards organizations.

Although many parts of this sketchy plan sound good, it smells like a Web 2.0, market-driven approach to standardization that is too Pollyanna-like to actually work. It’s missing a governance process that can winnow the proliferation of cloud requirements and specifications down to only the best and most fitting for government use.  

First, winnowing down the requirements will tamp down the ability to state that the Cloud is Everything. No, it is not — there is a properly scoped subset of computing functionality that is well suited for the elasticity of a cloud environment. Additionally, the privacy and security constraints for government cloud computing are much different than those for commercial cloud computing, and those differing requirements must result in different technical specifications.

Second, winnowing down the technical specifications will tamp down an agency’s ability to rebrand existing initiatives as cloud computing. Why is that important? Because the huge benefits in cloud computing require a cohesive stack of technologies that must support and reinforce one another in a coordinated manner. Such a single stack cannot be built by bandaging existing pieces together for reasons of expediency.

Winnowing down possibilities and selecting one interface or capability over another are hard work. It requires a deep technical understanding of the issues to decipher which solution is best. Bruce Lee said it best, “In building a statue, a sculptor doesn't keep adding clay to his subject. Actually, he keeps chiseling away at the inessentials until the truth of its creation is revealed without obstructions.”

Reader Comments

Sat, Aug 7, 2010

The Cloud is the Internet. So are you trying to burst the hype of it? Now there are Enterprise IT services available from the Cloud, which are accessed via the web that provide virtual private clouds hosted securely, that scale massively, have higher faster innovation curves, and drive costs exponentially lower. Then there is internal data center consolidation which should not be confused with true cloud computing. Not all applications will move to the cloud. It depends on mission, business, operational, financial, etc, considerations. Security is one of the primary reasons to move to cloud providers who have demonstrated expertise, in depth processes, cutting-edge technology and have met government C&A compliance requirements. We have, and will continue to have, mainframes, client/server, and now internet-based capabilities as a choice to drastically reduce delivery of IT enterprise commodity services when and where it makes sense to do. Regarding "relevant data raining down", yep this happens everyday on the Internet. It delivers more of the the right information to the right people at the right time more than any other system of systems in the world that has interoperability across networks, platforms, operating systems, and browsers. Where does this happen at this scale, level, and speed in current Enterprise legacy IT systems today? The largest SOA in the world, if you think about what it is suppose to accomplish, is the Internet. You can do mashups on the fly, reuse data and applications, and rapidly develop new ones in a fraction of the time. In actuality, it is time to burst the current Enterprise IT bubble that costs the government billions annually and is not delivering what users need and citizens expect to keep pace with today's operations. It will also impact the government's ability to attract, recruit, and most importantly, retain today's Web workers. They will not put up with it and voice their frustration by walking out the door. Government employees should be able to tell their IT services department what they need. The IT department should then choose the right technology service working with their users, not against them, to include clouds services when appropriate which have met government FISMA C&A compliance and other requirements, that best meet the needs of their employees to improve citizen services and daily operational efficiencies using modern web technology. After all, the US government helped create the Internet the enabled true cloud computing. Shouldn't we get back even more ROI by using it for government Enterprise IT service delivery?

Mon, Aug 2, 2010

Just catching up with this article, from the paper version, that is. Thank you for the candor. We in DOD are quickly jumping on too many hype-based bandwagons that have yet to prove themselves in our IT world. It was “All About SOA” a few years ago, and now, long before we ever saw that come to any sense of critical mass in Mainstream DOD, we are already jumping ship for “The Cloud” and have no real idea whether characteristics like – as you point out – security and privacy, and as I maintain, availability, reliability, cost, and latency issues can be worked out as an executable model for the many different echelons of usage across the range of military operations. Don’t get me wrong, a Luddite I am not; but we have a LONG, LONG way to go to ascertain the Cloud’s ultimate utility. I would like to see several major, visible pieces of the Mainstream DoD be prototyped in depth across several mission threads to see if this “next wave” is a miracle or a mirage!! Thanx, MJ Winslow, DepDivChief, USJFCOM J88

Tue, Jul 13, 2010 Doug San Diego, California

One has to balance the objectives of having standard APIs to control the elasticity with pushing that management intelligence into the cloud itself. I would much rather continue to program my LAMP stack and be able to move into the cloud and within clouds at will! There are cloud vendors that are working on smart caching, resource bursting, and other capabilities and while it will be great to standardize those APIs at some point, just HAVING those capabilities is a great discriminator right now!

Tue, Jul 13, 2010

He's right. Industry has been burned before when the feds whispered into vendors' ears "built it and we will come", only to find themselves holding the bag (ang their big R&D bills) when after building, the feds said "oh, never mind...."

Mon, Jul 12, 2010

Daconta is right to sound the alarm on this. I'll add one more concern, from a vendor's standpoint. Cloud is government's attempt to put all the financial risk on vendors without any real financial upside. In other words, force vendors to put major capital investments in place up-front without any reasonable assurances to recoup those investments in a reasonable time frame. Why would any responsible private sector company agree to this?

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