Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Real Problem with the Cloud

I am a big fan of cloud computing. The idea of having software provided as a service without having to actually deploy it makes a lot of sense. But, I often encounter skeptics who keep bringing up what I think are the wrong anti-cloud arguments - security concerns, availability issues, or perhaps the lack of customizations. The troubles that Amazon, Sony or Twitter just recently experienced are only fueling such arguments.

While those are valid concerns today, they are just growing pains. They are often exaggerated by the media and the blogosphere. In time, the cloud offerings may be able to address these issues better than any on-premise deployment. Take security, for instance, which is perhaps the most common issue raised by the cloud skeptics. Every one of my employers in the US used a SaaS based solution for payroll. And since that particular vendor caters to millions of users, I trust their security more than I would have trusted any one of my employers.

The one thing, however, that worries me about the cloud-based solutions today is the ability of a customer to part ways with their cloud providers. Nothing lasts forever and it is very likely that every customer will come to a point where they will want to get their data, templates, process definitions, business rules, users profiles, permissions, and customizations off the cloud vendor and move them into some other cloud.

The reasons may be many. The vendor could go out of business - it’s not like all those cloud start-ups are widely profitable today and some of them will just not make it. The vendor could also decide to shut down the service just like Google discontinued Wave and Video. The vendor could be acquired by someone else who changes the business terms. Or, the customer’s requirements evolve and the vendor no longer meets them. In any case, getting off a cloud where you have invested a ton of data and work isn’t trivial.

Nobody is talking much about this today. Of course, all the vendors are keen to attract and keep customers. Nobody wants to advertise the ability to let customers go easily. But that’s exactly what they need to do to get serious enterprise customers. They need to provide the right APIs, tools, services and terms that make an easy farewell possible.

This is the one cloud challenge that has me worried. On-premise software is also tough to leave but at least the customer owns the system and the data and has usually a plenty of time to figure out how to dump their vendor. A 30 day notice is not what enterprise customers will be comfortable with.


  1. The thing that bugs me most, or what I see as the "real problem" with the cloud, is that the term doesn't have a concrete definition. It means too many things to different people, making it hard to have a decent conversation about it with anyone.

  2. Hi Jonathan,

    Thanks for your comment. I agree that the terms 'cloud' and 'cloud computing' are being used very liberally today and that they mean many things to many people. To some, 'cloud' means a very specific SaaS-based applications while to others it is just a fashionable way of saying "the Internet".

    Not sure this issue really does much to my argument, though. I expect that the terminology will be subject to some rapid evolution in the next couple of years.


  3. The topic starts to emerge in various places, including the most recent Forrester PaaS Wave just published
    I think you understate the on-premise enterprise software lock-in, it is very expensive to switch an ERP, ECM, or BPM software once they are fully deployed - the problem is not new and exists in the on-premise world as well.
    One of the potential downsides of cloud vendor lock-in is a reduction in competition over time, and loss of some of the cost and flexibility advantages of cloud computing.
    Ultimately, addressing this depends on how you define “cloud” and the vertical vs horizontal integration of the emerging cloud stacks. Vertically integrated, single vendor stacks locks the customer into all layers on the cloud, including the computing and storage infrastructures (IaaS), management tools, application services, and the application itself. You’re either in or out. Emerging PaaS platform and specific application and business services can mitigate the level of lock-in, and enable a better best-of-breed composition of SaaS/cloud applications. Realizing such a vision without losing the simplicity and time to market promise of cloud computing requires more mature set of services and integration capabilities, which I expect will emerge in the next few years as part of the growing PaaS platform.

  4. It starts to play into your argument as for some people "cloud" is more about ease of deployment and administration as opposed to SaaS. Basically being able to very easily setup and maintain a large software install, being able to easily scale up as demand grows. Something I would probably call "private cloud", where you get most of the ease of SaaS, but that you still own and control.

  5. I think like in many other areas of information technology also Cloud is about to adopt standards, interfaces, handling routines etc. I remember times where it was not possible to switch the underlying database engine or to go to another operating system at reasonable cost and risk. I read about the rise of recently. This appears to point towards a unified cloud interface. It does not remove the issue you are describing – but it may be a way to put cloud into a well arranged stack of infrastructure solutions for companies.