Why cloud computing is still a red herring
My last column, “6 trends government IT managers should be wary of” received a good amount of praise and criticism. The key point of the article was that government information technology requirements — in terms of records and data management, security, and reliability — are very different from business IT requirements. At the most basic level, government is not profit-driven, and its needs for accountability and transparency require a strategic emphasis on IT.
One criticism was that I did not offer enough evidence, and I hope to rectify that by following up on each technology individually (I also discussed the article in an interview on Federal News Radio). Several critics also accused me of being archaic and a defender of the status quo, but nothing could be further from the truth. Throughout my career, I have implemented and pushed advanced technology as a strategic advantage, and I will continue to do so. The article’s critique of each technology exposed problems, not necessarily fatal flaws; each could still improve and be applied to their fullest.
The accusation that I am some kind of luddite was loudest for my critique of cloud computing. Although cloud computing is promising, the bottom line is that it is not yet finished. Using a cake analogy, cloud computing isn't fully baked. Let’s look at some of its pros and cons.
- The basic idea and value proposition of cloud computing is compelling. The concept is that computing services of various types — the National Institute of Standards and Technology has defined three: infrastructure, platform and software — can be dynamically provisioned and scaled as needed. Some of that is an evolution of previous concepts, such as utility computing and application service providers.
- There are several successful vendor implementations of cloud services, such as Amazon’s Web Service stack, Yahoo’s Build your Own Search Service, Google’s App Engine and Salesforce.com. Unfortunately, those early successes are proprietary and therefore also appear on our list of cons.
- Finally, things with strong, simple value propositions — such as the Web, virtual machines and the Extensible Markup Language — evolve and mature until they achieve mainstream adoption. As Robert Heinlein suggests, this usually happened in their third iteration.
The cons (in general and with the General Services Administration’s cloud computing request for quotations):
- In general, the success stories in cloud computing are all proprietary (see No. 2 above), with proprietary application programming interfaces. So whose cloud do you want to be part of? Rushing to replace stovepipe systems with stovepipe clouds is not revolutionary progress.
- On average, hardware and software costs are small relative to software development costs. That is one reason offshoring has grown exponentially. As an example, in one data warehousing project, the hardware and software costs were 25 percent of the overall cost. This would suggest that infrastructure as a service (IAAS) is not where you get the real bang for the buck; platform as a service and software as a service are.
- The GSA Cloud Computing RFQ specifies cloud storage services that are nonrelational. But the federal government has a huge investment in relational technologies, entity-relation modeling and database techniques. So in our haste, are we throwing out years of experience and requiring massive retraining?
- In GSA’s RFQ, IAAS data management is inadequate. There is no support for reference data, data asset metadata, role-based security, record-level access, records management, data validation, lineage or cleansing. In my opinion, this is a deal-breaker for today’s incarnations of cloud computing. Some others share this opinion.
So as I said in the six trends article, the best strategy for government right now with regard to cloud computing is to exercise prudence and hold off on major deployments until key issues have been resolved. In the meantime, the government can do three things: run test projects, foster standards and develop a concept-of-operations document. The Web is already revolutionizing government, so we can afford to let cloud computing bake a bit more.