Telling the difference between cloud and smoke

Returned a few days ago from NRF11. As expected, there were many companies advertising cloud computing, and yet, how disappointing when investigating the case a tiny bit further: it seems that about less than 10% of the companies advertising themselves as cloudy are actually leveraging the cloud.

For 2011, I am predicting there will be a lot of companies disappointed by cloud computing - now apparently widely used a pure marketing buzzword without technological substance to support the claims.

For those of you who might not be too familiar with cloud computing, here is a 3min sanity test to check if an app is cloud-powered or not. Obviously, you also go for a very rigorous in-depth audit, but with this test, you should be able to uncover the vast majority of smoky apps.

1. Is there any specific reason why this app is in the cloud?

Bad answer: we strive to deliver next-generation outstanding software solutions, exceeding customer expectations, blah blah blah, insert here more corporate talk …

A pair of regular servers - typically a web server plus database server - can handle thousands of concurrent users for non-intensive webapps. This is already a lot more users than what most apps of the market will ever face (remember with a high probability you don’t need to scale). So there has to be a compelling reason that justify the cloud beside the very hypothetical scenario to grow faster than Facebook.

2. Is the underlying infrastructure larger than 100k machines?

Bad answer: well, in fact we are just having our own dedicated servers at DediHost Corp Inc (put here the name of regular hoster).

A key aspect of cloud computing is cost reduction through massification. As of 2011, there are still only a handfew cloud providers available, namely: Amazon WS, Google App Engine, Rackspace Cloud, Salesforce and Windows Azure. Make sure to ask which cloud infrastructure is being used. Also, private clouds are no exceptions, it’s not because it’s “private” that suddenly massification is achieved with 100 servers. It takes more, a lot more, to build a cloud.

3. Can you open an account and get started right from the web, no setup cost?

Bad answer: let’s meet and evaluate your requirements first.

Multitenancy is a key aspect to reduce admin costs. In particular, with any reasonable cloud-based architecture there is no reason to have mandatory setup costs (which does not mean that company may not charge some optional onboarding package providing eventually training , dedicated support etc). Setup costs are typically a sign of a non cloud software where each extra deployment takes some amount of gruntwork.

4. Is there a public pricing? Typically indexed on usage or user metrics.

Bad answer: pricing really depends on your company.

For cloud-based apps, there are about zero compeling reason not to have a public pricing. Indeed, cloud costs are highly predicable and strictly based on usage, hence, it makes little sense from a market perspective to go for a customized pricing for each client as it increase sales friction providing no added value for the client.

5. Can two machines failing bring down the app along with them?

Bad answer: we have backups, don’t worry.

In the cloud, the app layer should be properly decoupled from the hardware layer. In particular, hardware failures are accounted for and primarily handled by the cloud fabric which reallocate VMs when facing hardware issues. The cloud does not offer better hardware, just a more resilient way to deal with failures. In this respect, setting-up a backup server for every single production server is a very non-cloud approach. First, it doubles the hardware cost, keeping half of the machine idle about 99% of the time, and second, it proves brittle facing Murphy’s law, aka 2 machines failing at the same time.

As a final note, it’s rather hard to tell the difference between a well-designed SaaS powered by a regular hoster and the same but powered by a cloud. Although, back to point 1, unless there is a reason to need the cloud, it won’t make much difference anyway.

Reader Comments (2)

While the following can be read between the lines in your point 2, I believe it deserves to be made explicit - no one expects a company “in the cloud” to actually own 100k+ servers, but only that they work with a host that does and makes new servers available as a press-button or automated process. And having to own private servers is pretty much the opposite of that indeed. A nice question that summarizes most of it is, can you get 100,000 new customers overnight without having to wake up your sysadmin ? Sure, your CFO might have to wake up and authorize more servers, but typing a credit card number is easy :-). February 11, 2011 | Victor Nicollet

Hi Victor, yes, you got exactly the point :-). February 13, 2011 | Joannes Vermorel