It's been a big week for cloud computing, but I can't help thinking that most players are missing the point. The cloud what we used to call utility computing, remember? is fundamentally about the commoditization of IT infrastructure. And the crux of commoditization is that simplicity always wins out over sophistication.
This week we've had Cisco coming out with its Unified Computing System for cloud data centers, we've had IBM supposedly in acquisition talks with Sun, and Sun unveiling its own Open Cloud Platform, while Microsoft revealed a little more of its cloud roadmap. Yet what I keep noticing, unheralded by any headlines, is the creeping de-facto standardization of Amazon's cloud. Analyst James Governor hits the nail on the head in his posting this week on Amazon Web Services: an instance of weakness as strength:
"Amazon isn't the de facto standard cloud services provider because it is complex it is the leader because the company understands simplicity at a deep level, and minimum progress to declare victory."
James' point is that Amazon has taken the bare, simple, inspired minimum to enable cloud computing while all its competitors are trying to be too clever by half. "The beauty of instance simplicity is ... no new skills," he points out, whereas, "The problem with fabric complexity is the promises being made." In Amazon's own words, it now supports IBM, Adobe, Oracle stacks, as "no-fuss, no-muss application development and deployment."
Or as Nick Carr put it, under the title Another little IBM deal that recalled IBM's coronation of Microsoft when it launched the PC back in 1981: "corporations and software developers will be able to run IBM's commercial software in Amazon's cloud ... Could the accidental kingmaker have struck again?"
Increasingly, I'm seeing evidence of a phenomenon Ismael Ghalimi first predicted more than two years ago: "Imagine for a moment ... deploying clones of Amazon's most popular Web services, including EC2, S3, SQS ... onto your own servers. Imagine that more elaborate versions would be developed on top of some kind of grid operating system ... Finally, imagine ... client-side software ... to use Amazon's Web services in combination with any other clone in order to get failover capabilities, without having to learn any new API."
Underneath this commoditization of the cloud layer, of course something drastic is happening to the underlying infrastructure stack. As Saugatuck Technology notes in a research alert (PDF, registration required) published today:
"... economic conditions and the growth of Cloud Computing are pushing user demand and interest more rapidly from standalone solutions to combined, integrative, cloud-based, or cloud-centered offerings ... The server landscape changes on a massive scale as a result."
This heralds massive consolidation of the server, network, storage and management stack, as heralded by Cisco's announcements this week. John Willis encapsulated it neatly with his observation that, "It's one thing to automate server elasticity; however, it's really big game if you can automate the configuration and provisioning of servers, network, and storage devices all in one swoop." But nevertheless, I can't help feeling that Cisco's all-too-elegant integrated implementation is yet another too-clever-by-half attempt to do something that commodity players will do much more simply, cost-effectively and (crucially) non-proprietarily.
In conclusion, I suspect the key point that most of the players seem to be missing about cloud is the reductionism that a true commodity infrastructure platform requires. It's only when you've stripped out all the non-essential parts and reduced it down to the bare necessities that you reach the ultimate cloud platform. But of course most of the players can't afford to do that quite literally because it strips out all the margin that generates their livelihood.
Cisco talks about the cost reductions (and petite carbon footprint) of its new data center platform. But in reality it's barely scratching the surface of what can be achieved when, following down the path it has now opened up, the physical underpinnings of IT infrastructure get fundamentally remade for cloud computing. The outcome of the chain reaction that has been set in train this week is going to drastically rewrite the economics of computing.