After my Beware of Shadow IT blog, someone asked me if Cloud Computing was an evolutionary or revolutionary change. My first reaction was to ask him “why?” Why did it matter, and what was he going to do with the answer. But I resisted and gave him a 30 second response that seemed to satisfy him.
My mind has a mind of its own, so a couple of days later it told me, “The implied question is critical: what should you do with the evolution versus revolution answer?”
The New Oxford American Dictionary defines “evolution” as “the gradual development of something, esp. from a simple to a more complex form.” It defines “revolution” as “a dramatic and wide-reaching change in the way something works or is organized or in people’s ideas about it.” In both cases I choose to ignore alternative definitions that were not related to the subject at hand.
Evolutionary change happens all of the time, and sometimes it is so slow that we barely notice it. Next year’s automobile is slightly different from this year’s, and even over decades the changes are relatively minor. Upgrading from a five-year-old car is not much of a shock, unless you have a stack of cassette tapes you like to play while you drive.
Revolutionary change occurs less frequently, and when you notice it, it becomes a “big deal.” Remember your first iPod, and your first trip to the iTunes Store? Suddenly, the way you bought, stored, and listened to music entirely changed. Before, buying music was an event. You and often some friends got in a car, and drove to a music store, where you pawed through row after row of records, tapes, or CDs depending on the decade. Sometimes you could listen to a track at the store. You carefully choose the albums you bought. Now, buying music just happens. Click and listen. Buy the album or buy a track. It has become more of a solo activity instead of a group activity, although you may share your newfound treasure in a tweet.
Note that the shifts from vinyl record to tape (in several formats) to CD were evolutionary. You needed a new gadget to listen to the music, but there was this relatively small collection of songs to listen to before you had to put in another physical media. Now your iPod can play music for days without repeating, and you can easily match your music to your mood of the moment.
One way to look at evolution versus revolution is whether you need to be retrained or think about it differently. Almost anybody who can drive a car today could drive a car from the 1950s, especially if the person knows how to drive a manual transmission. Please, no snide remarks about some people who actually did drive cars from the 1950s. More importantly, someone who drove a car from the 1950s could successfully drive a car from 2012. Sure, there are lots of new things and some slightly different ways of, for example, unlocking or starting the car, but the basic process would be familiar: steering wheel, floor peddles, and the rules of the road.
Somebody from the 1950s would have a lot of trouble with an iPod, not because they are hard to use, but because it is an entirely different paradigm.
So, which is the Cloud? Is it an evolution or a revolution? Like many things related to Cloud Computing, the answer is, “it depends.”
Consider a company I’ll call Acme Airflows. It started virtualizing their servers a decade ago. Five years ago they outsourced their IT department to a third party, who left all of the equipment and personnel in place. The IT staff now received a paycheck with a different name on it, but essentially not much changed. Two years ago they shifted to a Managed Services Company who now hosted the equipment and people in their own facility, some miles down the road. Yesterday, they received a bill for a Private Cloud from a Cloud Services Provider, which were exactly the same services provided by exactly the same provider. For Acme, their journey to the Cloud so far has been an evolution. At each step, they received business benefit in terms of reduced cost, some increased agility to react to change, and shifted most or all of the IT aggravation to someone else, but largely their IT is working much like it did ten years ago. They really have not had to rethink anything, but they can say they are “in the Cloud.”
Let’s look at Baker Biscuits, a new company started by a bunch of twenty-somethings who grew up with the iTunes Store, Twitter and Facebook. They solved their IT needs from the beginning by going to the Cloud: Amazon for servers, Google for their web site and email, Microsoft Office 365 for their office management software, and SalesForce.com for customer and sales management. As their business grew, their IT grew, automatically. Probably the only thing the owners noticed was that their bills for all of their IT were growing, but at a lesser rate than their sales were. When they opened their first branch in Sydney, they just updated their Amazon account to include the Amazon datacenter in Sydney. It all just happened. It was neither evolution nor revolution – they did not even know there was another way to do it. They probably did not even have what we more IT-savvy people would call an IT person on their staff. It wasn’t their problem to worry about.
Many companies are like Calisto Calipers. Calisto has been is business for 20 years, started with some highly customized software that was originally part of their competitive advantage. Today, their IT is still all housed in their own data centers. They probably have started down the same path as Acre Airflows by slowly embracing virtualization for servers and storage, but they still really “own” their IT in many meanings of the word: it is all capital expense, and it is tightly under the control of their IT director. But their IT costs have been steadily increasing, even while the current economic market has impacted their sales. For the past four years the CFO has been beating up everybody about cutting costs, while the CEO has been telling everybody to get ready for the coming rebound. The CIO has ulcers. She has cut the IT staff to the bone and held off on much needed hardware upgrades. If there is a rebound, she knows they won’t be able to handle it.
Calisto can no longer evolve out of their problem; they need to think differently. They need to totally rethink their IT needs and embrace Cloud Computing. They result will be a paradigm shift for them, but a much more sustainable place that can support the coming boom, no matter when it comes.
Acme could also benefit from some different thinking. They may be in the Cloud, but they are not yet able to take full advantage of the Cloud. At least they have evolved to a place where they can see the new world.
Baker Biscuits? They don’t even understand the question. They stay focused on their business in good times and bad times, and their IT is just there for them.
The last word:
Miss an evolution, and there is no big penalty. You can catch up later. Miss a revolution, and you could be out of business. But be prepared to embrace a paridgm shift.
Keep your sense of humor.