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Clouds – a simple explanation

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The topic of clouds has been a recognisable part of the debate on how to improve business using technology for some two years now, ample time for clarification on the topic and identification of the core issues and benefits. Yet if anything it has become less understandable with the passage of time, as the hype cycle attempts to remake almost any product or technique as a new technology to be considered under the ‘cloud’ label. Unsurprisingly, in view of this, I am regularly asked if there is a simple explanation of the concept, the techniques, products, in fact just about every aspect of the mysteriously far reaching and complex subject; The Cloud.

Well in my case more than two years have passed and during this time I have evolved a simple explanation, which most importantly does seems to work, and leaves those I am talking with satisfied that it is truly understandable. So here it is as a technology road map building up a series of changes starting with the advent of the Internet and the browser into popular use in the early 90s.

  1. The Internet; started a profound change by using standards to provide a simple, yet effective, universal connectivity capability that allowed anyone and anything to be contacted as and when needed without predetermined planning and implementation of special faculties.
  2. The Web; or what we might look back on as Web 1.0, followed this by providing browser technology for the universal management of content, a real game changing moment in terms of technology standardisation suddenly offering real tangible benefit, and changing how companies could participate in the external marketplace by building websites.
  3. Web 2.0; more recently added a new range of technologies and capabilities around the ability of people to interact, and share in a new range of so called ‘social’ activities, so named because of the universal social model created, an equally radical game change that put people at the centre rather than applications, data or computer.
  4. Cloud Services; are the latest stage of this progression adding the much needed ability to deliver processes, as universally accessible services delivered in a standardised manner from servers in a cloud data centre with a payment model based on use and an operating model based on simplicity in build, and flexibility in changing the orchestration of any process.
Just reflect for a moment on the importance of this last point and consider how difficult it is currently to achieve process by using the content model to create forms. As social CRM continues the transformation of business models around ‘servicing’ customers, and marketplaces better, by matching customer demands and responding to events in optimised ways, the importance of an effective process model to manage the cycle from initial interest to placing an order is clear.

But quite how does this translate into the term ’clouds’? Strangely enough it is simple. The above four technology steps are all based on using a technology model that is described as ‘loose coupled, stateless and non deterministic’. In contrast traditional enterprise IT applications are integrated in a manner described as ‘tight coupled, state-full and deterministic’ allowing enterprise architecture to draw diagrams which show exactly what is connected to what and for what purpose. With the new technologies in a loose coupled model there are no permanent connections, it’s not possible to draw up an enterprise architecture diagram in the same way. The only possibility is to show which users and devices are part of the same ecosystem, then represented by a drawing of a cloud.

It therefore follows that by definition anything based on the standard client-server tight coupled model cannot be described as a cloud! BUT some of the key technologies such as virtualisation in particular that are part of the new technologies that make up clouds can be used highly effectively to improve the operating efficiencies of existing data centres. This is a sensible and highly recommended approach, and in time enables such data centres to support cloud service layers too, which may be the basis for the confusion as to whether or not these techniques should properly be referred to as clouds.

Well I have said it now, maybe I will face some irate marketing people, maybe even some real technologists, but I just hope that this simple description might be seen as helpful by many readers of this blog.

About the author

Andy Mulholland
Andy Mulholland
Capgemini Global Chief Technology Officer until his retirement in 2012, Andy was a member of the Capgemini Group management board and advised on all aspects of technology-driven market changes, together with being a member of the Policy Board for the British Computer Society. Andy is the author of many white papers, and the co-author three books that have charted the current changes in technology and its use by business starting in 2006 with ‘Mashup Corporations’ detailing how enterprises could make use of Web 2.0 to develop new go to market propositions. This was followed in May 2008 by Mesh Collaboration focussing on the impact of Web 2.0 on the enterprise front office and its working techniques, then in 2010 “Enterprise Cloud Computing: A Strategy Guide for Business and Technology leaders” co-authored with well-known academic Peter Fingar and one of the leading authorities on business process, John Pyke. The book describes the wider business implications of Cloud Computing with the promise of on-demand business innovation. It looks at how businesses trade differently on the web using mash-ups but also the challenges in managing more frequent change through social tools, and what happens when cloud comes into play in fully fledged operations. Andy was voted one of the top 25 most influential CTOs in the world in 2009 by InfoWorld and is grateful to readers of Computing Weekly who voted the Capgemini CTOblog the best Blog for Business Managers and CIOs each year for the last three years.

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