If it’s dangerous it’s NOT cloud computing

Having written something similar over the weekend myself (How Open Cloud could have saved Sidekick users’ skins) I was getting ready to complement this post, but fear-mongering title aside (Cloud Computing is Dangerous) I was dismayed to see this:

“Let’s call it what it is, it’s a cloud app — your data when using a Sidekick is hosted in some elses data center.”

I simply can not and will not accept this, and I’m not the only one:

“Help me out here. I’m seeing really smart people I totally respect jump on this T-Mobile issue as a ‘Cloud’ failure. Am I losing my mind?”

For a start, Sidekicks predate cloud by 1/2 a dozen years, with the first releases back in 2001. Are we saying that they were so far ahead (like Google) that we just hadn’t come up with a name for their technology yet? No. Is Blackberry cloud? No, it isn’t either. This was a legacy n-tier Internet-facing application that catastrophically failed as many such applications do. It was NOT cloud. As Alexis Richardson pointed out to Redmonk’s James Governor “if it loses your data – it’s not a cloud”.

While I know that this analogy is inconvenient for some vendors it works and it’s the best we have: Cloud is resilient in the same way that the electricity grid is resilient. Power stations do fail and we (generally) don’t hear about it. Similarly datacenters fail, get disconnected, overheat, flood, burn to the ground and so on, but these events should not cause any more than a minor interruption for end users. Otherwise how are they different from “legacy” web applications? Sure, occasionally we’ll have cloud computing “blackouts” but we’ll learn to live with them just as we do today when the electricity goes out.

As a more specific example, if an Amazon DC fails you’ll lose your EC2 instances (the cost/performance hit of running lock-step across high latency links is way too high for live redundancy). However the virtual machine image itself should be automagically replicated across multiple geographically independent availability zones by S3 so it’s just a case of starting them again. If you’re using S3 directly (or Gmail for that matter) you should never need to know that something went wrong.

But Salesforce predates cloud by almost a decade you say? This data point was a thorn in my side until I found this article (Salesforce suffers gridlock as database collapses) and the associated Oracle press release (Salesforce.com’s 267,000 Subscribers To Go On Demand With Oracle® Grid). With wording like “one of its four data hubs collapsed” in what “appears to be a database cluster crash” I’m starting to question whether Salesforce really is as “cloudy” as they are claim (and are assumed) to be. Indeed the URL I’m staring at as I use Salesforce.com now (https://na1.salesforce.com/home/home.jsp – emphasis mine) would suggest that it is anything but. NA1 is one of 1/2 a dozen different data centers and their “cloud” only appears as a single point when you log in (http://login.salesforce.com/) at which time you are redirected to the one that hosts your data. Is it any wonder then that it’s Google and Amazon that are topping the surveys now rather than Microsoft and Salesforce?

Don’t get me wrong – Salesforce.com is a great company with a great product suite that I use and recommend every day. They may well be locked in to a legacy n-tier architecture but they do a great job of keeping it running at large scale and I almost can’t believe it’s not cloud. I see it as “Software. As a Service”, bearing in mind that it’s replacing some piece of software that traditionally would have run on the desktop by delivering it over the Internet via the browser. SaaS is, if anything, a subset of cloud and I’m sure that nobody here would suggest that any old LAMP application constitutes cloud. But we digress…

I honestly thought we had this issue resolved last year, having spent an inordinate amount of time discussing, blogging, writing Wikipedia articles and generally trying to extract sense (and consensus) from the noise. I was apparently wrong as even our self-appointed spokesman has foolishly conceded that what can only really be described as gross negligence in IT operations and a crass act of stupidity is somehow a failure of the cloud computing model itself. I agree completely with Chris Hoff in that “This T-Mobile debacle is a good thing. It will help further flush out definitions and expectations of Cloud. (I can dream, right?)” – it’s high time for us to revisit and nail the issue of what is (and more importantly, what is not) cloud once and for all.