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Cloud Decision-Making Unchained
by Diane Mueller

Diane Mueller, January 10, 2013

IT professionals often have a hard time communicating to others what it is that they do for work. Unlike farmers who grow corn or bakers who make bread, IT workers don’t “make” tangible products. Yet every day, they do “make” decisions.

IT’s true job is decision-making, as Seth Godin noted in a recent blog post entitled What Do You Make? But making decisions can be surprisingly difficult, and in the cloudy area of rapid iteration, agile development, and “fail fast,” the market does not tolerate much procrastination. IT professionals must learn to how to better exercise their decision-making muscle.

The longer IT delays making decisions about the right cloud strategy, the farther behind the competition the organization gets. It becomes harder to find and retain human resources, as highly skilled cloud architects are quick to jump ship once they realize the company they work for moves too slowly. Luckily, in the same way bakers follow recipes to make cakes, IT professionals can use a two-step methodology that will help them make better cloud decisions.

First Step: Taking an Inventory

Before making any decisions, it is important to identify the applications and services that are currently running within an organization. One of the benefits of this initial exercise is that it will help track down “zombie” applications. Zombies are those pesky, little-used applications that under-perform, eat up resources, and cost the company millions in resources and licensing fees. Getting rid of these obsolete applications will immediately result in significant cost savings.

However, the real purpose of an inventory is to uncover dependencies involved in the applications used by the organization. The assessment will help determine the right cloud infrastructure needed to support these applications. For example, a company may often claim to be a completely closed .NET shop, only to discover that the real linchpin analytics are achieved through a Python application running on LAMP stack. Even in organizations with the strictest corporate IT rules, developers always find ways to create “shadow” IT projects, using a variety of languages and frameworks that do not conform to corporate standards.

With the inventory, it becomes easier to see which databases, web servers, frameworks, and languages need to be supported and moved to the cloud, and which applications can be safely abandoned.

If the inventory does indeed reveal that the organization relies on an assortment of of languages, frameworks, web servers, and databases, then IT managers can incorporate this key variable in their decision-making process and consider what is the best cloud infrastructure to serve the needs of a polyglot organization. Stackato is an obvious choice, as it runs on any cloud and is a polyglot PaaS.

Second Step: Setting the Right Goals for the Future

Identifying the organization’s applications and dependencies is an important step towards making the right decisions. Yet it is also important to look at the future, so that the decisions made today are not creating tomorrow’s roadblocks. Three principles should be considered to ensure sustainable decision-making.

Choosing Portability Over Convenience

Many companies have successfully convinced their sales team to drive revenue through Salesforce, and have converted Microsoft Office addicted staff to Google Docs. On the surface, these cloud platforms look very attractive. Salesforce offers many convenient services, and Google’s cloud platform provides a wide range of Google apps. However the other side of the coin is that in order to truly benefit from these proprietary platforms’ extended functionality, an organization will be forced to rewrite existing applications. It means that IT will have to do the heavy lifting to integrate the company’s applications with Gmail, Google Docs, and other Google apps, and none of this process is out of the box. In the end, these services and extended functionality lock an organization into specific cloud platforms, making deployment to any other infrastructure almost impossible.

Choosing portability over convenience will ensure that an organization is not locked in any proprietary solution.

The Open Principle

There are now many cloud infrastructure providers to choose from. When it comes to selecting a public, private, or hybrid cloud, it is important for IT managers to keep their options open.

As the largest cloud provider, Amazon Web Services is a great solution for organizations that are mostly focused on cost. However Amazon remains a proprietary closed API, driven by the high volume/low margins mantra. As such, this option presents serious limitations for an enterprise that requires more control and access to live technical support.

With the advent of OpenStack and CloudStack, it now becomes possible to select leading public cloud providers that are deployable as a private cloud solution within the enterprise’s own data center and controlled by the in-house IT team. By choosing an open cloud like OpenStack or CloudStack, an organization retains the ability to deploy on either a public or private cloud, and gains all the cloud agility, performance, and economic benefits of the cloud without being locked into a proprietary solution such as Amazon Web Services.

By choosing an open cloud, an organization retains the freedom to easily switch to different solutions in the future.

Checking Under the Hood

Clouds that are built on commodity hardware and are solely driven by lowest margins and highest volumes often fail. The best software in the world still depends on the hardware running underneath. In its recent blog post, Reliability in Cloud Computing, Sam Johnson discussed the challenges faced by many enterprises that adopt cheap reliable software to enable the transition away from expensive reliable hardware.

Both Amazon and Google obtained an early market advantage by offering great proprietary cloud computing software running on top of commodity hardware. However, software is now available as open source, and enterprises no longer tolerate outages. Hardware vendors such as HP and Dell have stepped into the market and run clouds on a much more reliable and trusted hardware. This gives risk-averse enterprises more options, as they can now choose among a number of more reliable, trusted public cloud providers.

Making the decision to move to the cloud becomes less risky. Making cloud strategy decisions is not that hard. All it takes is conducting an inventory, shooting a few zombies, and embracing the open cloud path. The true power of decision-making in the IT world can be unchained for the future.

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Diane Mueller is a Cloud Evangelist at ActiveState. She has been designing & implementing financial applications at Fortune 500 corporations for over 20 years. Diane has been actively involved in development efforts of XBRL Open Standard (http://www.xbrl.org) since 1999.