Friday, January 16, 2009

Slouching Toward The Cloud

In wandering the Ether this afternoon I rediscovered a friend's blog and his latest post, Cloud computing is a sea change. Mark Mayo has a lot to say about how cloud computing is going to change the career path of systems administrators in every corner of the industry, and he references Hosting Apocalypse by Trevor Orsztynowicz, another excellent article on the subject.

There's definitely a change coming. Cloud computing has the potential to put us all out of work, or at least severely hamper our employability, if we don't keep on top of the changes and keep our skills up to date.. but that's been true of every shift in the industry since it came into being. Every time a new technology or shift in business practises comes along, individual sysadmins either adapt or restrict their potential employers. The difference with cloud computing is that it promises a lot of change all at once, where in the past we've mostly dealt with at most two or three new things to think about in a year.

I think there are some potential drags on the takeover by cloud computing that will slow the changes Mark and Trevor warn of, however.

A few times now we've been warned that the desktop computer is doomed, and that it's all going to be replaced by thin clients like the Sun Ray from Sun Microsystems, or more recently mostly-web-based Application Service Providers like Google Apps. Despite years of availability of thin clients, and cheap, easy access to more recent offerings like Google's, this hasn't happened. Individual users, and even some small organizations may have embraced web apps as free alternatives to expensive packages like Microsoft Office, but I'm not aware of any significant corporations that have gone down this road. The main reason? I think it has to do with control of data. Most companies just don't want to hand all their data over to someone else. In many cases, simple reluctance can become a statutory hurdle, particularly when you're talking about customer data and there's a national border between the user and the data store. I think this same reasoning will come into play with even stronger force when companies start considering putting their entire data centre in the hands of another company. The difference in who has access to your data between co-location and cloud computing is significant.

Additionally, I think the geography problem will keep cloud computing out of some sectors entirely. As I noted in the comments to Mark's article, the current architecture of choice for cloud computing products is the monolithic data centre. Having only a handful of large data centres around the world will keep the cloud from consuming CDNs like Akamai and keep it out of other sectors entirely where wide topographic or geographic distribution is required, and a large number of small data centres are used, like root or TLD DNS infrastructures.

Mark correctly points out that the geography problem will be solved in some ways as cloud computing becomes more ubiquitous and the big players grow even larger, and in others as the cloud providers become the CDNs. But until a cloud provider can guarantee my data won't leave my local legal jurisdiction I'd never recommend the service to whoever my employer happens to be... and even once they can I'd still recommend the lawyers have a good hard look at the liability of handing over all the company's data to another party.

Mark's core point remains valid however: change is coming. Whether it's fast and sudden, or slow and gradual, sysadmins had better be prepared to learn to deal with the cloud computing APIs, and be comfortable working with virtual machines and networks, or they'll be left behind.

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