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What’s Missing from “Cloud First” in the Enterprise?

Cloud First doesn’t just apply to applications, it needs to apply to infrastructure as well

My first experience with an "inverted yield curve" was in 2000 just prior to the tech bubble bursting. I was working on a financial portal for an investment bank and one of the charts was a yield curve. It looked odd all of a sudden, so I looked it up in a book of financial terms. An inverted yield is indicated when interest rates for short-term capital are higher than interest rates for long-term capital. In other words, people are willing to pay a significant price to alleviate short-term concerns because they're focused on the now and not so concerned about one year, three years, five years, or thirty years from now. Inverted yield curves some believe signal disruption in financial markets. On the surface, Cloud First seems to signal the disruption that is cloud computing. To take this metaphor a little further, this inversion of Cloud First from "Cloud Never" suggests to me an inverted set of concerns. Does Cloud First prioritize an immediate need to say "something" about the cloud and cloud strategy? Does Cloud First prioritize the now while discounting near, mid, and long-term opportunities that far exceed the "costs less, more agile, faster time-to-market" recording I hear played daily throughout the blogosphere? Beyond saying "Cloud First!" what else can enterprise technology teams prioritize that may amplify their ability to execute in the cloud?

One of the primary strengths of "Cloud First" is the simplicity:

Q: "Hey, where do we deploy the new financial system?"

A: "Put it in the cloud."

Yet the real power of Cloud First lies in the underlying recognition that details and choices, as they filter down through multiple levels of management, quickly become confusing. On many levels in corporate IT I get the sense that the more details provided, the more likely things will go forth along an unintended arc.

Cloud First reminds me of the trailer from the movie "Face Off" starring Nicholas Cage and John Travolta, in which they actually do trade faces for a while. The best thing about the title of the movie is that you know something pretty amazing (and possibly horrifying) is going to happen and it grabs your attention. Cloud First? - same thing - it's got everyone's attention: we're unleashing the monster the media has been warning you about and it's too late to turn back. If we need to do a sequel we'll call it "Mobile First."

What Does Cloud First Look Like?
What Cloud First lacks that the movie title "Face Off" owns is the power to place a clear mental image in the mind of its audience. In a Cloud First organization where I worked, to give meaning to the mantra, I invited guest speakers from successful cloud startups to present their business and talk about cloud. One of my favorite speakers was Stephane Dubois, CEO of Xignite, a cloud market data service that serves billions of requests per month. Xignite's business model of serving data to the underserved "long tail" of the market as well as creating a network effect that multiplies the value of the data in the cloud demonstrates opportunities executives need to keep in sharp focus and track closely. In this way Xignite is a great technology example in a "relatable" industry that values uptime. By bringing in business leaders to present what they're doing in a "serious" business, CIOs and business leaders can build a vision of what success in the cloud might look like for their business.

What Does Cloud First Lack?
What Cloud First lacks in specificity of mission, it also lacks in implementation guidelines. This lack of specific guidelines could be a strength. Or, if you play with the words a little you might work out that Cloud First means "consume cloud services first," and never build or drag data center technology across a VPN or otherwise contaminate the cloud with infrastructure crushed under the weight of the interest on 20 or more years of accumulated technical debt. But since nobody I've met in corporate IT seems to arrive at that interpretation of Cloud First organically, I've provided some guidelines.

Whatever cloud you're on, try to consume cloud services. As an architect, specifying services rather than asking teams brand new to cloud to quickly build robust, highly available databases that will withstand the rolling outages of a year like 2012 is really unfair, and it just won't happen. It's like the scene in "Kill Bill" where the "Crazy 88" suddenly demand 20 pizzas in a Sushi restaurant. It will just exasperate people and make them go, well, crazy. In cases where an Oracle RAC database was absolutely necessary I solved the problem by defining an architecture in which the application layer ran in the cloud, but the database ran "close" to the cloud via a low latency fiber cross-connect. I don't suggest you try this unless there's no other option, as was the case in 2011 when I worked on that solution.

In other words, it's really difficult for IT teams in large corporations to suddenly build highly available databases in the cloud. I've seen it end very badly even when implemented by good people. In many cases the services available in the cloud have the scalability and availability "wrapped" into the service. Similar to the way Linux succeeded largely because "with enough eyes all bugs are shallow," perhaps the cloud manifesto is that given enough implementations and users, a cloud services performance and availability will blow away a one-off, bespoke database implementation built by a team new to cloud. Not building services from scratch may not be as much fun or as hard core as what the cool startups do, but you'll have plenty of interesting things to figure out without building everything from the ground up. One of the rules of Cloud First is to focus your team's energy and avoid fighting battles on soggy unfamiliar ground. One of the more subtle messages of Cloud First is that a key element of a corporate cloud strategy is to avoid building stuff from scratch unless you have zero other options. People may work very hard to convince you to do otherwise, but stick to cloud services first.

Cloud First Doesn't Just Apply to Applications. It Needs to Apply to Infrastructure as Well
The cloud seems to be all about application developers. Yet corporate IT could be more Cloud First focused. I just don't see enough IT organizations following Cloud First when it comes to DNS services, storage services for offsite data backup, content distribution, or disaster recovery. Some CIOs really do follow a Cloud First strategy and make it meaningful. For example, one of my forward-thinking CIO customers first asked his team how they could leverage cloud storage to replace an ailing file server. (No Nirvanix jokes please.)

More Stories By Brian McCallion

Brian McCallion, founder of New York City-based consultancy Bronze Drum focuses on the unique challenges of Public Cloud adoption in the Fortune 500. Forged along the fault line of Corporate IT and line of business meet, Brian successfully delivers successful enterprise public cloud solutions that matter to the business. In 2011, while the Cloud was just a gleam in the eye of most Fortune 500 firms Brian designed and proved the often referenced hybrid cloud architecture that enabled McGraw-Hill Education to scale the web and application layer of its $160M revenue, 2M user higher education platform in Amazon Web Services. Brian recently designed and delivered the JD Power and Associates strategic customer facing Next Generation Content Platform, an Alfresco Content Management solution supported by a substantial data warehouse and data mart running in AWS and a batch job that processes over 500M records daily in RDS Oracle.”

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