Category Archives: Ecology

The Tragedy of the Commons in Cloud standards

I wasn’t at the OSCON Cloud Summit this past week, but I’ve spent some time over the weekend trying to collect the good bits. Via Twitter, I had heard echos of an interesting debate on Cloud standards between Sam Johnston and Benjamin Black. Today I got to see Benjamin’s slides and read reports from two audience members, Charles Engelke and Krishnan Subramanian. Sam argued that Cloud standards are needed, Benjamin that they would be premature.

Benjamin is right about what to think and Sam is right about what to do.

Let me put it differently: Benjamin is right in theory, but it doesn’t matter. Here is why.

Say I’m a vendor and Benjamin convinces me

Assume I truly believe the industry would be better served if we all waited. Does this mean I’ll stay away from Cloud standards efforts for now? Not necessarily, because nothing is stopping my competitors from doing it. In the IT standards world, your only choice is to participate or opt out. For the most part you can’t put your muscle towards stopping an effort. Case in point, Amazon has so far chosen to opt out; has that stopped VMWare and others from going to DMTF and elsewhere to ratify specifications as standards? Of course not. To the contrary, it has made the option even more attractive because when the leader stays home it is a lot easier for less popular candidates to win the prize. So as a vendor-who-was-convinced-by-Benjamin I now have the choice between letting my competitor get his specification rubberstamped (and then hit me with the competitive advantage of being “standard compliant” and even “the standard leader”) or getting involved in an effort that I know to be counterproductive for the industry. Guess what most will choose?

Even the initial sinner (who sets the wheels of premature standardization in motion) may himself be convinced that it’s too early for Cloud standards. But he has to assume that one of his competitors will make the move, and in that context why give them first mover advantage (and the choice of the battlefield). It’s the typical Tragedy of the Commons scenario. By acting in a rational and self-interested way, participants invariably end up creating a bad situation, one that they might all know is against everyone’s self interest.

And it’s not just vendors.

Say I’m an officer of a Standard-setting organization and Benjamin convinces me

If you expect that I would use my position in the organization to prevent companies from starting a Cloud standard effort there, you live in fantasy-land. Standard-setting organizations compete with one another just as fiercely as companies do. If I have achieved a position of leadership in a given standard organization, the last thing I want is to see another organization lay claims to a strategic and fast-growing area of the IT landscape. It takes a lot of time and money for a company to get elected on the right board and gets its employees (or other reliable allies) in the right leadership positions. Or to acquire people already in that place. You only get a return on that investment if the organization manages to be the one where the key standards get created. That’s what’s behind the landgrab reflex of many standards organizations.

And it goes beyond vendors and standards organizations

Say I’m an IT buyer and Benjamin convinces me

Assume I really believe Cloud standards are premature. Assume they get created anyway and I have to choose between a vendor who supports them and one who doesn’t. Do I, as a matter of principle, refuse consider the “standard-compliant” label in my purchasing decision? Even if I know that the standard shouldn’t have been created, I also know that, all other things being equal, the “standard-compliant” product will attract more tools and complementary solutions and will likely ease future integration problems.

And then there is the question of how I’ll explain this to my boss. Will Benjamin be by my side with his beautiful slides when I am called in an emergency meeting to explain to the CIO why we, unlike the competitors, didn’t pick “a standards-based solution”?

In the real world, the only way to solve problems caused by the Tragedy of the Commons is to have some overarching authority regulate the usage of the resource at risk of being ruined. This seems unlikely to be a workable solution when the resource is not a river to protect from sewer discharges but an IT domain to protect from premature standardization. If called, I’d be happy to serve as benevolent dictator for the IT industry (I could fix a few other things beyond the Cloud standards landgrab issue). But as long as neither I nor anyone else is in a dictatorial position, Benjamin’s excellent exposé has no audience for which his call to arms (or rather to lay down the arms) is actionable. I am not saying that everyone agrees with Benjamin, but that even if everyone did it still wouldn’t make a difference. Many of us in the industry share his views and rationally act as if we didn’t.

[UPDATED 2010/7/25: In a nice example of Blog/Twitter synergy, minutes after posting this I was having a conversation on Twitter with Benjamin Black about my interpretation of what he said. Based on this conversation, I realize that I should clarify that what I mean by “standards” in this post is “something that comes out of a standard-setting organization” (whether or not it gets adopted), in other words what Benjamin calls a “standard specification”. He uses the word “standard” to mean “what most people use”, which may or may not be a “standard specification”. That’s a big part of the disconnect that led to our Twitter chat. The other part is that what I presented as Benjamin’s thesis in my post is actually only one of the propositions in his talk, and not even the main one. It’s the proposition that it is damaging for the industry when a standard specification comes out of a standard organization too early. I wasn’t at the conference where Benjamin presented but it’s hard to understand anything else out of slide 61 (“standardize too soon, and you lock to the wrong thing”) and 87 (“to discover the right standards, we must eschew standards”). So if I misrepresented him I believe it was in making it look like this was the focus of his talk while in fact it was only one of the points he made. As he himself clarified for me: “My _actual_ argument is that it doesn’t matter what we think about cloud standards, if they are needed, they will emerge” (again, in this sentence he uses “standards” to mean “something that people have converged on”).

More generally, my main point here has nothing to do with Benjamin, Sam and their OSCON debate, other than the fact that reading about it prompted me to type this blog entry. It’s simply that there is a perversion in the IT standards landscape that makes it impossible for premature standardization *not* to happen. It’s something I’ve written before, e.g. in this post:

Saying “it’s too early” in the standards world is the same as saying nothing. It puts you out of the game and has no other effect. Amazon, the clear leader in the space, has taken just this position. How has this been understood? Simply as “well I guess we’ll do it without them”. It’s sad, but all it takes is one significant (but not necessarily leader) company trying to capitalize on some market influence to force the standards train to leave the station. And it’s a hard decision for others to not engage the pursuit at that point. In the same way that it only takes one bellicose country among pacifists to start a war.

Benjamin is just a messenger; and I wasn’t trying to shoot him.]

[UPDATED 2010/8/13: The video of the debate between Sam Johnston and Benjamin Black is now available, so you can see for yourself.]


Filed under Amazon, Big picture, Cloud Computing, DMTF, Ecology, Everything, Governance, Standards, Utility computing, VMware

Taxonomy of Cloud Computing Benefits

One of the heavily discussed Cloud topics in early 2009 was a  Cloud Computing taxonomy. Now that this theme has died down (with limited results), and to start 2010 in a similar form, here is a proposal for a taxonomy of the benefits of Cloud Computing.

Just like the original Cloud Computing taxonomy only had three layers (IaaS/PaaS/SaaS), so does this taxonomy of Cloud benefits. The point of this post is to promote the third layer. I describe layers 1 and 2  mainly to better call out what’s specific about layer 3.

Layer 1 (infrastructure: “let someone else do it”)

This is the bare-bottom, inherent benefit of Cloud Computing: you don’t have to deal with the hardware. In practice, it means:

  • no need to worry about power/cooling,
  • on-demand provisioning/deprovisioning (machines appear/disappear in a way physical machines do not),
  • not responsible for physical security (though responsible for ensuring that the provider has an acceptable security level),
  • economies of scale (for equipment purchase and operations),
  • potential environmental benefits,
  • etc…

Layer 2 (management: “let a program do it”)

More specifically, more automated IT management. This does not require Cloud Computing (you can have a highly automated IT management environment on premise), but the move to Cloud Computing is the trigger that is making it really happen. While this capability is not an inherent benefit of Cloud Computing, the Cloud makes it:

  • Needed: You don’t get to put color tags on machines, you don’t get to bring a DVD to install a new application, you don’t get to open a machine to insert more memory, you don’t get to go retrieve a backup tape, label it and put it in a safe, etc. Of course loosing these “privileges” doesn’t sound bad considering that they are mostly chores, but it means that you have to design alternative (and mostly programmatic) ways to perform the functions that these tasks addressed.
  • Easier: Cloud environments are highly API-driven. Many IT tools from the previous generation were console-centric (people would go out and buy “a network/event/system management console“) with APIs/protocols as a secondary thought. In Cloud environments, tools are a lot more API-centric with the console as an adjunct (anyone has stats about the ratio of EC2 instances provisioned via the AWS console versus the APIs?). This is also why even though a lot of people wanted standard management protocols (of the WSDM/WS-Management generation), there wasn’t as much of a realization of their importance in the old environment (and not as much pressure to create them and eagerness to adopt them). The stakes and visibility are a lot higher in the Cloud environments and that’s why this second wave of protocols will have to succeed where the previous one came short.
  • More beneficial: Once you have automated IT management in a traditional data center, what you get is fewer employees needed and somewhat better utilization. But you are still gated by the time/process to purchase/install new machines and the cost of unused machines (at least with automation you don’t have to pay their power/cooling). You don’t get the “just what I need” level of infrastructure usage that the same automation work allows in a Cloud setting.

Layer 3 (applications: “do it right”)

In short, use the move to the Cloud as an opportunity to fix some of the key issues of today’s applications. Think of the Cloud switch as a second Y2K, 10 years later: like in 2000, not only are there things that the transition requires you to fix, there are also many things that aren’t exactly required to fix but still make sense to fix as part of the larger modernization effort. Of course the Cloud move is missing that ever-so-valuable project management motivator of a firm deadline, but hopefully competitive pressure can play a similar role.

What are these issues? Here is a partial list:

  • Security: at least authentication and authorization. We have SSO/Federation systems, both enterprise-type and Web-centric and they often suck in practice. Whether it’s because of the protocols, the implementations, the tools or the mindset. Plus, there are too many of them. As applications gained mouths and ears and started to communicate with one another, the problem became obvious. If, in the Cloud, you also want them to grow legs and be able to move around (wholly or in parts) then it really really has to get fixed. Not to mention the “all or nothing” delegation model that I am surprised hasn’t yet created a major disaster (let’s see what 2010 has in store). I suggested a band-aid fix earlier, but this needs a real solution (the Cloud Security Alliance provides some guidance in this document, see “domain 12” for IAM).
  • Get remote application interfaces right. It’s been discussed, manifesto’ed, buried and lampooned many times before (this was my humble take on it). Whether it’s because of WS-* or, more likely, java2wsdl we have been delayed in this but it simply has to happen. Call it SOAP, zenSOAP, REST, practical REST or whatever you want. Just make sure that all important functions and data are accessible via clear, documented, consistent, easy-to-use, on-the-wire interfaces. Once we have these interfaces, and only then, we can worry about reliably composing/orchestrating applications that cross organizational boundaries.
  • Related to the previous point, clean up the incestuous relationship between an application and its data. Actually, it’s not “its” data. It’s the data it works on.
  • Deliver application-centric IT management. Quit loosing and (badly) re-creating information: for example, an application deployment followed by a black-box discovery (“what did I just do”?). Or after-the-fact re-establishing correlations between events on different servers (“what was this about”?). Application management too often looks like a day in the life of a senile person.
  • Fault-tolerance and disaster recovery. It is too often lacking (or untested, which is the same) for applications that are just below the perceived threshold of requiring it to be done right. That threshold needs to be lowered and the move to the Cloud can be used to make this possible.

[You should also read Tim Bray’s perspective (and Stefan Tilkov’s comment) on the process/methodology/tools for enterprise applications, an orthogonal (but related) area of improvement. More fundamental.]

As I mentioned above, these are mostly not Cloud specific (though it is possible to create a Cloud connection for each). They are things that we have known about and tried to fix for a while. But the pace has been pretty slow and there is an opportunity for the Cloud transition to do more than just hand out the keys of the datacenter.

What kinds of benefits are you aiming for in your Cloud plans?

[UPDATED 2010/01/11: An interesting take on a similar topic by Brenda Michelson: 5 Enduring Aspects of Cloud Computing]

[UPDATED 2010/01/14: Along the same lines (but looking at it in the other direction), an interesting graph from Alistair Croll of Bitcurrent.]


Filed under Application Mgmt, Automation, Cloud Computing, Ecology, Everything, IT Systems Mgmt, Mgmt integration, Security, Utility computing

Is IT management to enterprise IT what ecology is to economic development?

What happens when a society gets hold of a new territory or a new technology? It usually starts by decimating the easy preys in that territory or by running wild with the technology. Using abundant resources (food, fuel or other) with abandonment, dumping waste everywhere. Then there is a crisis directly tied to this lack of restraint. Maybe an epidemic. Or starvation from the sudden disappearance of easy-to-get food (or fuel). Lack of clean water. Landslides from deforestation. Something is done to address that crisis and its direct causes. It starts with random acts of what is not yet called ecology. And then the best practices gets more widely adopted. But another crisis appears. Other changes need to be made. Eventually people start to look beyond fighting individual fires and towards managing the environment as a whole, in a way that aligns with the desired quality of life. Models are developed to better understand relationships and predict consequences. Comprehensive environmental studies appear. People take a lifecycle approach to managing the environmental aspects of development. Processes, policies and rules get defined. And of course, companies and consultants appear to help with these tasks.

This is a (widely) simplified description of how ecology appears out of necessity in developing societies and how its development is a gating factor for sustained economic development. Of course, this is the happy view, the one where the society is able to correct its course before collapsing.

Doesn’t this sound very similar to the way IT management appeared and is developing in enterprises?

When enterprises got hold of computing as a business tool, individual departments deployed applications with little planning and coordination, just to grab the low-hanging fruits of increased productivity. Then comes the crisis, a key system goes down and no-one knows what to do. Business suffers. Some early, localized, monitoring functionality is created to fix the problem. A random act of management that addresses a tactical issue. But more problems happen, the system gets more complex than niche management tools can address. Eventually people start to look at IT management more globally, to think of it as a way to align IT with business objectives. Models are developed to better understand relationships and predict consequences. People take a lifecycle approach to managing changes to the IT environment. Best practices, processes and even rules and compliance mandates get defined. And of course, companies and consultants appear to help with these tasks.

Does this parallel reveal any opportunity for one side to learn from the other? Will you hire Greenpeace to run your data center?

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Filed under Ecology, Everything, IT Systems Mgmt, Off-topic