Lightning Strikes the Cloud

This blog post is sponsored by the Enterprise CIO Forum and HP.

Recent bad storms in the United States caused power outages as well as outages of a different sort for some of the companies relying on cloud computing and cloud-based services.  As the poster child for cloud providers, Amazon Web Services always makes headlines when it suffers a major outage, as it did last Friday when its Virginia cloud computing facility was struck by lightning, an incident which John Dodge examined in his recent blog post: Has Amazon's cloud grown too big, too fast?

Another thing that commonly coincides with a cloud outage is ponderances about the nebulous definition of “the cloud.”

In his recent article for The Washington Post, How a storm revealed the myth of the ‘cloud’, Dominic Basulto pondered “of all the metaphors and analogies used to describe the Internet, perhaps none is less understood than the cloud.  A term that started nearly a decade ago to describe pay-as-you-go computing power and IT infrastructure-for-rent has crossed over to the consumer realm.  It’s now to the point where many of the Internet’s most prolific companies make it a key selling point to describe their embrace of the cloud.  The only problem, as we found out this weekend, is that there really isn’t a ‘cloud’ – there’s a bunch of rooms with servers hooked up with wires and tubes.”

One of the biggest benefits of cloud computing, especially for many small businesses and start-up companies, is that it provides an organization with the ability to focus on its core competencies, allowing non-IT companies to be more business-focused.

As Basulto explained, “instead of having to devote resources and time to figuring out the computing back-end, young Internet companies like Instagram and Pinterest could concentrate on hiring the right people and developing business models worth billions.  Hooking up to the Internet became as easy as plugging into the local electricity provider, even as users uploaded millions of photos or streamed millions of videos at a time.”

But these benefits are not just for Internet companies.  In his book The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google, Nicholas Carr used the history of electric grid power utilities as a backdrop and analogy for examining the potential benefits that all organizations can gain from adopting Internet-based utility (i.e., cloud) computing.

The benefits of a utility however, whether it’s electricity or cloud computing, can only be realized if the utility operates reliably.

“A temporary glitch while watching a Netflix movie is annoying,” Basulto noted, but “imagine what happens when there’s a cloud outage that affects airports, hospitals, or yes, the real-world utility grid.”  And so, whenever any utility suffers an outage, it draws attention to something we’ve become dependent on — but, in fairness, it’s also something we take for granted when it’s working.

“Maybe the late Alaska Senator Ted Stevens was right,” Basulto concluded, “maybe the Internet really is a series of tubes rather than a cloud.  If so, the company with the best plumbing wins.”  A few years ago, I published a satirical post about the cloud, which facetiously recommended that instead of beaming your data up into the cloud, bury your data down underground.

However, if plumbing, not electricity, is the better metaphor for cloud computing infrastructure, then perhaps cloud providers should start striking ground on subterranean data centers built deep enough to prevent lightning from striking the cloud again.

This blog post is sponsored by the Enterprise CIO Forum and HP.


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