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What is the Sound of One Cloud Thunderclapping?

Posted by Bob Warfield on November 1, 2010

I just finished reading Randy Bias’s piece, “Elasticity is NOT #Cloud Computing … Just Ask Google“, and I must admit, it takes me back to all sorts of questions of a vaguely unsettling nature that have been bubbling below the surface of my cloudy thinking for some time.

If Elasticity is NOT Cloud Computing, and I profoundly disagree with that statement, then what the heck is Cloud Computing?  I admit to already having been pretty skeptical about whether Private Clouds are really Cloud Computing, but I got over that from an understanding of elasticity and private clouds.  However, if we take away Elasticity, and make whatever is left Private, I’m not sure we have anything profound whatsoever.  How does it differ from an outsourced data center, for example?

Randy seems to have come to his position about elasticity by looking at the large web operators like Amazon, Google and Salesforce who offer Cloud platforms of one kind or another (IaaS, PaaS, and the rest of the alphabet soup).  He’s interested in their history, why they built the kind of infrastructure they did, and why that turned out to be an ideal platform from which to offer Cloud Computing offerings.  My problem is that the mere fact that Amazon did not get the Elasticity benefit from its Cloud that AWS customers can does not in any way diminish the revolution that is the Cloud and that comes with Elasticity.  Without customers, these fancy Amazon and Google data centers are literally the sound of One Cloud Thunderclapping (because Clouds don’t just clap in the sense of the old Zen saying).  I don’t see how you can regard those data centers as “Cloud” at all.  A term more like “commodity computing” data center, perhaps with some form of “virtual” thrown in makes more sense.  Interestingly, it is the addition of the customers to their data centers that exposed Amazon and Google to a little elasticity.  Why?  Because now they have customers to help pay for excess computing capacity and hence elasticity.   What a beautiful thing, and another strong argument for why elasticity changes everything. 

The term “Cloud”, in any sense I’ve ever heard it used, is a service of some kind provided by one organization and shared (this sharing is critical) by many other independent customer organizations.  Thinking back on the idea that Amazon’s data center wasn’t cloud until they flipped the switch and started sharing it with customers (that’s the point where they got elasticity too), you can see that the ideas of “sharing” and “independepent customers” are critical.  Without both, there is no way to pay for the excess capacity that is elasticity, or at the very least, if the sharing is the sort pushed by companies like VMWare to up server utilization, it isn’t quite the same as having real net positive dollars coming in from paying customers, versus simple cost savings.

This is where I get into trouble with the Private Cloud concept.  Yeah sure, people are interested in building data centers that use technology similar to what the “Cloud” vendor’s data centers use.  Yeah sure, there is some benefit to that.  Those technologies were developed by organizations that needed to commoditize their data center services into as cheap an offering as possible.  But to call that Cloud Computing sure seems like gratuitous marketing to me.  If nothing else, it radically understates the challenge those organizations faced.  A little bit of storage virtualization, a healthy dose of VMWare-style machine virtualization, and do you really have the full benefits of Cloud Computing?  Not in my book.  You just have a modern data center. 

There are steps beyond that to take advantage of.  And the advantages are enough of a quantum leap that it isn’t fair to award the accolade “Cloud” for anything less.  If you do, you’re just engaging in gratuitous marketing, trying to draft somebody else’s hype and momentum.  I am already on record as arguing for the definition of Cloud being two things: 

–  It is Software as a Service.  I sometimes refer to this as “Ops as an API”, meaning rather than crawling around cages and machine racks, you perform ops by making API calls on your Cloud infrastructure.

–  It is Elastic.  Yep, I refuse to separate Elasticity from the Cloud, though Randy’s piece wants to leave it more in the camp of simply “Data Center as a Service”.

So then what really is a Private Cloud, and can we still call it a Cloud?  If you include the Software as a Service Piece, and the Elasticity, I would say “yes”.  The difference between a Public and Private Cloud is simply that in the Private case, the Customer paid the service provider to decouple their Private Cloud from the rest of the Public Cloud so no network traffic can get into the Private Cloud without its full knowledge and consent.  This is no biggie–it’s a subnet with the additional proviso that we don’t run anyone else’s Cloud Software but the one owner of the Private Cloud insider that subnet.  This is actually a pretty good deal for all concerned.  The Private Cloud user still gets nearly all the benefits of the Public Cloud user.  They do not get quite a good a price as they must monopolize the hardware to a greater extent than their Public brethren, but it is still a great deal.  Elasticity is still available to them, as is “Ops as an API”.  If your Private Cloud lacks either one of those characteristics, you have a modern data center, but it isn’t Cloud, despite what your vendor’s marketing people want to tell you.

Why do a Private Cloud? 

Largely to reduce perceived risks.  The risks boil down to security and performance.  The Private Cloud is presumably more secure, and its performance is more predictable because no unknown Public Cloud tenants can get into the Private Cloud and do unknown things.

There is one more advantage I will mention for the Cloud, which very much does include Elasticity, versus the Modern Data Center, which uses some Cloud technology, but has no Elasticity and is not a Cloud:

You Cloud Vendor may have more buying power than you, more technology they have amortized over more customers, and hence a lower cost to deliver the service than even relatively large corporate data centers can attain.  Hey, if it was easy, everyone would be doing it, instead of just everyone claiming to do it.

4 Responses to “What is the Sound of One Cloud Thunderclapping?”

  1. I agree with you Bob. If you take away elasticity then the whole value delivered by Cloud is all but a glorified upgrade of IT infrastructure. I would argue that providing on-demand elasticity is the fundamental premise of Cloud Computing. Everything else is a means to that end.

    I also think the whole Private Cloud is, if anything, a myth that every company can build their own, with the same efficiencies of Amazon or Google – perpetuated by the large IT vendors with obvious vested interests. The current IT organizations in most companies (those very ones that are planning to embark on a private cloud) are left panting, just performing an ERP upgrade let alone building and running a Cloud.

    Granted there are some cases where regulatory reforms are not yet caught up with the realities and force companies to build their own fenced data centers. Building a elastic consolidated data center across multiple business units/subsidiaries of a conglomerate comes to mind as another scenario. Think GE building a private cloud – and consolidating GE Medical, Plastics, Aerospace, Capital etc provisioning IT infrastructure from a common resource pool. But that is easier said than done. Let alone building a Private cloud, just getting all those internal IT data center lords to agree on things – like SLA, charge backs should be a big milestone.

    In terms of security concerns, the last time I checked – most of the data leaks were perpetuated by people within.

  2. glenn9090 said


    I like Gartner’s definition of cloud computing ( They include 5 attributes – service-based, scalable & elastic, shared, metered by use, and uses internet technologies. This is a comprehensive definition in my view, which notably excludes the common notion of private cloud. At last month’s Gartner Symposium ITxpo, their lead virtualization analyst made the clear points that private cloud is next-generation virtualization, and that virtualization strategies will lead eventually (in 5 years or more) to the public cloud, for economic reasons. Your last few sentences are spot-on in this regard, as are Subraya’s comments.

    Glenn Weinstein

  3. rnugent said

    Randy is Right. Elasticity is a side effect. Cloud – and I hesitate to dredge up the “what is a cloud?” debate from 2008 – has a lot of technical qualities but the key benefit for a corporate IT organization has to do with the business effects of the Cloud – how the CIO delivers IT services to his customers – not technical features that IT customers don’t care about. His argument is that we need to separate the technical features of cloud from the fundamental business and process changes cloud delivers. Cloud is not elasticity, multi-tenant or virtualization. Cloud is a new approach(I hate the word paradigm) to IT delivery.

    Ray Nugent

    • smoothspan said

      Ray, what you’re saying is content free. If it’s not elasticity, multitenant, or virtualization, what exactly is different?

      It’s all fine and well to put the cart behind the horse by getting clear on what benefits you’re seeking before worrying about which features deliver them. But to ignore the horse entirely is to get stranded for having made a decision without understanding the underlying factors that delivered the benefits and how they may change in the future. CIO’s that can’t understand this are just as doomed to fail as though who focus solely on features without regard to business impact. Both are recipes for Fail.

      Moreover, elasticity is very much a benefit. Go read what Netflix and many others have to say about why they favor the Cloud. It isn’t some nebulous undefinable MBA blah blah blah. They made their decisions after much careful analysis and elasticity is a hugely part of them. Why did Amazon introduce GPU instances? Because it just seems like a cool thing to do? No, because pharma, rendering farms, and countless others can use the elastic horsepower to do things they couldn’t before.

      To ignore elasticity is to fall prey to the mishmash of marketing BS that’s being sold as Cloud instead of focusing on what really makes the Cloud different and better.



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