Saturday, July 16, 2011

A sceptical programmer and sysadmin's opinion on cloud computing

I do not think that cloud computing benefits are real for everyone, for a series of reasons. Firstly, any new business can usually begin with very little resources and upgrade if and when the need arises. Scalability and ease of migration are properties that depend on how well the infrastructure has been designed. There is no magic wand to provide these qualities other than good system administrators and programmers that work for the companies themselves and know exactly what is needed at all levels of the IT infrastructure.

Secondly, usually new business are based on new developments that can only be done in-house because industrial secrets are involved and a lot of internal knowledge is needed to properly design and optimize systems. Therefore any core sofware cannot be provided by a cloud service and this is the software that counts most for both new and old businesses.

Thirdly it seems to me that cloud computing is not a flexible choice for most IT companies, especially innovative start-ups, but only for other kind of businesses that do not have (or do not want to have) any or enough in-house IT expertise, if that is ever possible without impairing productivity.

Maybe the hardware can be provided as a service, provided that it is fully manageable, but often is not - e.g. if you force me to use a certain pre-installed Linux distro on a VM, it could not be the best choice for what I have to do, although it is a mainstream one. I should be able to install and configure whatever is best for me instead.

But software cannot really be provided as a service, unless it is just generic, like software packages you buy off-the-shelf for office automation. Even if it were, we miss the right technology to do that. They are using the Web, which even in its "2.0" version is far away to provide all the features of traditional desktop applications in a fast and easy to develop way - it wasn't intended for this purpose from the start and has grown slowly and awkwardly.

In any case security is a very big concern. E.g. I would be more tranquil if my software and data are physically in my hands rather than in those of a multi-national that lives on advertising. Moreover by buying services you are buying nothing, it is just hot air, you have even less control than proprietary software. Richard Stallman is right...

I do not feel cloud computing as a real need, at least technologically speaking. It seems to me no more than a clever marketing operation so that the big companies can make more buck by excluding or trying to exclude individual professionals. But skilled IT professionals can generally do better than service companies because they can provide bespoke solutions, as it is often required. For technical and management reasons there is often very little that is worth or safe to outsource apart from traditional hosting. So what's the point of cloud computing?

I would like to see some commercial distributed operating systems instead - we are waiting for them for years, but it seems nobody of the big companies is interested in this evolution. We are still stuck with the results of research made more than forty years ago! It looks like they don't want to put such powerful tools in the hands of professional system administrators but prefer to sell directly the same old technologies to customers, just renamed as "cloud", so that they can maximize their revenues with no real technology advancement, on the contray more disadvantages than advantages for the clients.

So what will cloud computing mean to (real) sysadmins? Just a curse that will make our life harder by reducing our scope of operation and tie our hands. The best of us won't recommend it and, at least once, in the interest of the customer too.

I dare foreseeing cloud computing won't take because it really doesn't meet the IT needs of companies and a successful open-source distributed OS will be soon developed to wipe out all clouds (really) and make sysadmins' lives easier. I hope to live enough to see that. Considering how slow operating systems are evolving I might not be on the show anymore.

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