Public cloud: you can run SAP on Amazon

I continue to encounter an interesting phenomenon regarding cloud computing as I speak at conferences, present to IT groups, and talk to businesspeople interested in the subject.

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I continue to encounter an interesting phenomenon regarding cloud computing as I speak at conferences, present to IT groups, and talk to businesspeople interested in the subject. Most people recognize the importance of cloud computing, acknowledge the relevance to their environments, and describe their initiatives.

However, one thing I often hear is that while Amazon is the clear leader in cloud computing, "it's mostly used by SMB organisations." In other words, public cloud computing is not being used by big enterprises. And, people add, even if large companies are using public clouds, it's for "unimportant" applications. The canonical example offered by people making this observation is that "no one is moving SAP to the cloud."

What I find interesting about these discussions is how poorly they match my experience and observations. From our experience, Amazon and its fellow on demand cloud providers like Rackspace are being used by large organisations quite a bit, for important applications, and certainly the use is increasing.

So why the disconnect between actual facts on the ground and perception?

Who led the open source charge? Developers

I've long thought that the rise of on demand cloud computing reminds me a lot of the adoption of open source, and that perspective was reinforced by a couple of blog posts I read this week by Stephen O'Grady of the analyst firm RedMonk.

The first is his discussion (titled "Meet the New Kingmakers, Same as the Old Kingmakers") about a Forrester report analysing open source adoption within enterprises. The report found significant use, buttressed by survey results and other facts. In his post, O'Grady mildly criticised Forrester for coming to a conclusion that RedMonk did four years ago.

RedMonk, he explains, believes that developers are the true decision makers in organisations and from its interactions with those type of folks, RedMonk knew years ago that open source was being used in a big way. Forrester, he notes, surveyed CIOs and senior IT decision makers, that is, management. He quotes a post by former Red Hat sales exec Billy Marshall that "CIOs are the last to know," meaning, IT organisational decisions are actually made bottom up (i.e., by developers), and that senior management perception lags reality by a significant margin.

O'Grady states: "We are founded upon the idea that developers are the single most important constituency in technology. Open source dramatically lowers the barriers to adoption, such that developers may build upon what they want rather than what they're given." Both O'Grady and Marshall emphasise that developers use open source because it makes doing their job easier.

The implication for organisations, as Marshall's anecdote illustrates, is that decisions made by developers create commitments for the organisations they are part of, commitments that the organisation does not recognise at the time they are made by the developer. They may in fact be decisions that, had the organisation understood them at the time they were made by the developer, would have been eschewed. The result is that two or three years down the road, these organisations "discover" technology decisions and applications that are based on choices made by developers without organisational review.

This may account for the curious lack of respect given Amazon on the part of IT organisations and vendors. O'Grady addresses this in a second post titled "Hiding in Plain Sight: The Rise of Amazon Web Services." In it, he primarily addresses the fact that most technology vendors evince little fear of Amazon, preferring to focus on private cloud computing environments. He attributes this, in part, to the vendors' desire to keep traditional margins rather than descending into a pricing battle with Amazon.

I might attribute it to a different factor: Vendors primarily seek to talk to senior management, those who control budgets that pay for the vendors' products, and, as we've just noted, those managers often miss the reality of what developers are actually doing. Consequently, they won't be telling vendors how much public cloud is being used, and the vendors will respond with the time honoured "we don't really see them much in competitive situations". I used to hear this a lot from proprietary software vendors about the open source alternatives to their products.

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