At what point does a company that provides remote data center services to enterprise customers suddenly become a cloud services provider? Is it a gradual transition or a switch they flip to take advantage of the buzzword du jour?
I discussed that question last week with Jim Leslie and Kent Christensen of Datalink, a remote data center services provider or cloud services provider, call it what you will. Leslie, Datalink’s executive vice president of advisory services, and Christensen, the company’s virtualization/cloud practice director, had already offered some interesting insights about the gap between what matters to IT and to the C-suite with respect to the cloud, which I wrote about last week. I turned the discussion to the hype vendors tend to latch onto when catchphrases like “cloud computing” emerge, and both Leslie and Christensen were tremendously good sports about addressing the issue.
So here’s the thrust of what I wanted to get the Datalink executives’ perspective on. In a post I wrote a few weeks ago, I made this observation:
I’ve always gotten a kick out of the way certain catchphrases emerge in the IT realm every couple of years, and how IT vendors rush to spin their product stories around whatever catchphrase seems to be enjoying the most hype at the time. Ten years ago, it was all about the emergence of “utility computing.” When that became blasé, everybody jumped on the “green computing” bandwagon. That morphed into the “cloud computing” frenzy, which now has also become kind of ho-hum. Fortunately for the IT marketing crowd, “Big Data” swooped in to capture the imagination of an industry that seems to suffer from a communal attention deficit disorder.
I conveyed that observation to Leslie and Christensen, and asked them if they thought I might be on to something. Leslie didn’t flinch:
I’d say yes and no. Mostly yes. But what I would say is two things: If you look at utility computing to green to cloud, there are maturations along a theme that is driven by a very real corporate issue: ever-increasing need for more capability, and [the problem of having] facilities that don’t support that; and the need to eliminate waste, improve efficiency, and have variable-use models in place so that when it’s a temporary demand for capability, the business can tap into that temporary need without having to create a permanent cost structure. Is the IT industry very adept at catching a term and redefining all of their products as being compatible with that term? Sure. Do consumers of IT get tired of that? You bet. But it isn’t quite ADD. It’s more a maturation along a theme than it is just random terms getting attention. I think there’s something far more meaningful and thoughtful about the transition.
Christensen chimed in, rightly, that there’s plenty of blame to go around:
OK. So in view of all that, when Datalink, which was founded in 1958 (that’s not a typo), introduced cloud computing services, was it introducing something new that it didn’t provide before, or was it just renaming something it was already providing? Leslie’s response was that they were introducing something new that leverages everything they had done before:
There were significant enhancements we had made around the virtual data center. What also became really clear to us is that the companies we were talking to weren’t clear on what steps they needed to take in order to develop private or hybrid cloud services for their organizations; and that they were skeptical about all the claims that companies [that provide cloud services] were making related to how those companies were going to help enterprise accounts develop a private cloud. So what we heard them say to us was, “Show us a process that we can go through to understand from a service delivery perspective, an operational perspective, what we have to do in order to deliver private cloud services. And then show us that you can actually do this. Show us that it’s not just an empty promise, but that you can do it.” So what we built was a set of analysis processes that helped our clients define their service catalog, and define how they were going to deliver cloud services. And then we built Datalink on Demand Labs, which allow our clients to get firsthand experience, both from an end-user perspective as well as from an IT management perspective, private cloud service delivery. So when we help our clients see this service can be delivered as a cloud, we can show them what it feels like as an end user consuming that service, and what it feels like as IT to deliver that service.
Christensen added that some key realizations had crystallized in that process:
I don’t think a little over a year ago we would have realized how many businesses have an opportunity with, for example, their app dev group. So one of the use cases in Datalink on Demand Labs is, here’s a typical relationship between IT and an app dev group, and here’s how it can be delivered via cloud. And that one resonates more than anybody ever thought. We spent a lot of time going through that as one of the initial use cases that they can get a business outcome from—rapid delivery, more efficiency, etc., and do their POC [proof of concept].
I noted that another element that plays into all this is that you can talk to 10 different people, and get 10 different perceptions of what cloud is. Christensen agreed:
And it’s almost predictable as to how they benefit from it. So if I have a data center and I’m trying to sell cloud, I’m going to talk to you about the benefits of that, and in certain cases there are benefits. Clearly, we come from the point of view that our customers have existing operations and existing data centers, so how do we leverage the attributes of cloud for them to get the most benefit across the organization?
I also noted that some IT managers say, “Our stuff’s in the cloud,” and all they really mean is there’s a remote data center hosting their stuff. Christen agreed again:
It’s really hard to say everything is one thing, right? This is one of the challenges with Airline Magazine Syndrome [where the CEO says], “We need to get to the cloud.” Well, you know what? You’ve already got stuff in the cloud, if you want to look at it that way. You’re using [Microsoft] Office 365, you’re using SaaS applications, so some stuff is already in the cloud. More will go to the outside [public] cloud. But most organizations have some key, core, critical things that won’t fit there very well today, and what do they do about that? So a decision for an organization to go to cloud should be application by application. An app dev person might, on his own, say, “I’m going to Amazon or [another public cloud provider] to get my work done because I can’t get it from IT. Most of what IT uses the public cloud for are things like Salesforce.com and other SaaS applications. We certainly see IT’s business unit customers going out and sampling outside sources to get their resources. That’s where IT says that’s dangerous, it’s not compliant. Most of our mid- to large-size customers are getting significant benefits from saying, “Deliver the attributes of cloud—agility, metered service, etc.—but you’ll be able to deliver it more efficiently than some outside party.” Because they have to buy the stuff too, they have to make a profit, and they don’t understand your business.
Finally, I asked whether the emergence of the term “cloud computing” and all the buzz around that has created a marketing boon for Datalink and companies like it. Christensen’s response:
It’s been a pretty good run for three years for any [vendor] in IT to say, “I’m cloud.” There’s a lot of confusion between the consumer cloud and the enterprise IT cloud. They’re two different things. What I’ll do with iTunes I may not do with health care data or banking data. For some [vendors], “cloud” is getting a little tired, and they’re looking more at service delivery—how do I deliver IT as a service? That’s really what a cloud is—delivering some service.