Migration Isn't the Only Obstacle to Cloud Computing

By Rob England

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Cloud computing is "buzz" concept of the year for 2009. It has its place, especially for high-risk/low-capital applications like startups or small business or websites, but for enterprise computing and―especially for improving existing core applications―I have a more jaundiced view.

As a concept, Cloud computing is a pointer to the future, but there is much hype around the present. As James Maguire of Datamation put it recently: "As Cloud computing has emerged as a red hot trend, tech vendors of every stripe have painted the term ‘Cloud’ on their products, much like food brands all tout that they’re ‘low fat'."

Quite simply the idea is impractical for legacy enterprise applications. It is yet another technical solution to a business problem. Such technical solutions to non-technical problems usually don't solve the original problem. They tend to introduce more problems of their own, and almost invariably introduce greater complexity to be managed, but IT loves them. They offer a silver bullet, out-of-the-box fix to take the pain away, which is hard to resist. So it is with "The Cloud".

We are speaking here about Cloud computing as the provision of distributed infrastructure across the Internet; the ability to process “anywhere”, which is the generally accepted current definition of the term. We are not talking about SaaS (software as a service), which was what “The Cloud” may have originally referred to. Although that is a valid part of the Cloud, because it does not apply to migration of legacy applications.

Cloud computing is one of those hype terms that gets applied to everything, so, to be clear, we are also not referring to internal grids or hosted computing or the myriad other things that seem to get lumped into “The Cloud".

What we are talking about is infrastructure than moves around the network, including outside the bounds of the organisation to providers of resources on-demand. Using one proposed ontology: platform, processing, data and communications as a service or, for the acronym lovers out there, PPDCaaS.

Bernard Golden, one of the leading thinkers on open source, has some interesting things to say about obstacles to adoption of the Cloud in his article The Case Against Cloud Computing. He identifies five obstacles and in Part I he looks at the first: migration. He is open-eyed but upbeat about addressing the problem of legacy migration, and believes it can be overcome. I, on the other hand, am a little more sceptical.

For the Birds

"According to one person I spoke with," writes Golden, "migrating applications out of internal data centers and into the Cloud is the key interest driver for Clouds among enterprises. But, once they find out how difficult it is to move an application to an external Cloud, their enthusiasm dwindles. It seems well within technical capability for someone to develop a P2C (physical to Cloud) migration tool that could all or much of the technical effort necessary for migration. Of course, this tool would need to be able to translate to several different Cloud architectures.

"Even if an automated tool does not become available, there is the potential for service providers to spring up to perform migration services efficiently and inexpensively," Golden continues. "Naturally, performing this migration would not be free; either software must be purchased or services paid for. The point is that this is not an insurmountable problem but a well-bounded one."

Wide bounds though. Migration services won't be inexpensive. No executive is going to sign off on the risk of doing such a migration without re-testing the whole thing. The effort is enormous: think Y2K. All we changed there was the date format. What people on the wild frontiers of Web 2.0 forget is the reality of enterprise computing. Changing the code is the easy bit. Long ago IBM had an excellent diagram that went something like the picture here. The techie bit of making the changes to the code is a tiny part of the overall effort (and that diagram doesn't include the increased ongoing effort of management).

Fifteen years ago a major bank got sick of problems that an upgrade of my employer's mainframe database was causing them. They commissioned a team to evaluate converting their Forex app to DB2 (no doubt as a response to some golf-course conversation with IBM). The cost back the just for a Forex system, not the whole bank, was US $50M. (Disregarding the hidden cost of the massive hardware upgrade they would have needed just to get DB2 off the runway and into the air, which was of course IBM's intent). Flush. End of that idea.

Most service owners are reluctant to have IT rip the guts out of an enterprise application and re-architect its foundations; for the Cloud or anything else. The cost is prohibitive and the business outcome is zero change. When IT people pull their heads out of their technology butts long enough to look around and get a service perspective, they see that as far as the paying customer is concerned, large sums are being spent on an existing IT issues, which deliver no new service.

Cloud-Based Services

Some will see a way around this objection through Cloud services that do not require code changes: services that operate at the operating system, network or storage level to redirect requests out into the Cloud for fulfilment. This does indeed simplify the problem somewhat, but not enough. The amount of planning, negotiation and testing required for risk mitigation is still a large obstacle―just to solve problems which business owners expect to be invisible to them: cost cutting, scalability and performance.

Likewise solving the interoperability problem is not the answer here. The Cloud Computing Interoperability Forum (CCIF) has some major sponsors and just might make some progress here. Likewise the International Standards Organisation is looking at it. Neither of those initiatives will help the migration issue: whatever we change whether it is code or underlying platform infrastructure, it is a change. Real enterprise applications require a great amount of effort to change. This is inescapable. We need to cut costs and increase scalability in our existing applications for sure. Spending many millions to float our existing business systems on a Cloud isn't the right answer.

Very few organisations see such wild variations in load that they need resort to the Cloud for on-demand capacity. And the supposedly lower costs of management from service providers is a myth that the outsourcing industry still manages to perpetrate. When all the hidden costs―including lost IP, risk, migration, delays (ironically) and provider overheads―are factored in, the benefits are less compelling.

Nor is waiting going to solve the problem. Well, it might if the next technology wave sweeps the whole issue away, or perhaps the problem will be carried off by a herd of flying pigs. Until then, the Cloud has some serious maturing to do. As Gartner says:

" … technologically aggressive application development organizations should look to Cloud computing for tactical projects through 2011, during which time the market will begin to mature and be dominated by a select group of vendors. Following this period, Gartner predicts that the market will see a surge of new vendors and subsequent consolidation as Cloud computing becomes appealing to more mainstream application development organizations."

Note “application development”, i.e., new apps. No matter how much the Cloud matures, a change is still a change. Major change to applications is expensive. The more sweeping the change the greater the measurable financial benefits required to justify it. The Cloud proponents seem to lose sight (or at least perspective) on this.

Lack of Focus

We should be concentrating on the non-technical aspects of IT, where there remains enormous potential for greater efficiencies. Another recent Datamation article highlights open source as an alternative. There are also other areas that require improvement such as improved morale, better business skills, more efficient processes, reduced change failures, better project selection and management, server consolidation, renegotiation of contracts for spare capacity on-site, and outsourcing of selected specialist functions in-house (such as network administration, monitoring, and provisioning).

Yet we don't learn. Cloud computing is another vendor-driven, techno-geek fantasy that adds complication, risk and expense. One day it may prove to be a useful tool in certain contexts, but it isn't the miracle fix it is touted to be. In fact, it looks to be unobtainable for most existing systems because the migration is too large an effort for an internal IT return with no visible change in the delivered service.

Rob England is "The IT Skeptic", an IT industry commentator best known for his blog, The IT Skeptic. He lives in a little house in a little village in a little country far, far away.