Cloud Hidden, Whereabouts Unknown

Steve Smith, CIO, University of Nevada, Reno
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Steve Smith, CIO, University of Nevada, Reno

‘Cloud Hidden, Whereabouts Unknown’ is the title of a book by Alan Watts, the philosopher and writer who popularized Eastern philosophy for a Western audience. He died before this current age of the cloud but his title is apt for the promise and the peril of our latest technology evolution.

The promise, for the person using cloud based services, is expressed in the sublime simplicity of whereabouts unknown. Web enabled services are delivered immediately to someone on the device of their choice and it matters little where the source of the service resides. The near promise of anywhere, anytime, quick, and seamless delivery.

The peril lies in the cloud hidden aspect. Seamless service delivery is not so much hidden as all too often simply missing. It is the missing middleware which should smoothly weave together the IaaS, the PaaS, and the SaaS whether they be from public, private or hybrid clouds to present a unified, easy-to-navigate experience. This lack of integration among the multiple cloud providers adds complexity, often making the end experience less than what it could or should be.

 The integration gets messier the more unique services you try to stitch together. 

Many of the vendors, at least their frontline sales, often present one of those alternative realities we encounter so often these days. They spin a tale of a coherent set of services stitched together by automation that neither the end user nor you as the local IT shop need worry about. The end result of all the pieces working together like synchronized swimmers is usually expressed as workflow, basically automated procedures. Workflows do exist in abundance within the provider’s own slice of service. If you stay within the boundaries of any single cloud provider, life can be like a glider floating effortlessly through a calm sky. But try crossing the boundary between provider A and provider B and the workflows get turbulent if they hold together at all. The integration gets messier the more unique services you try to stitch together. Diversity is complex.

There are workarounds. Some niche cloud providers like Box or OnBase tout their integrations with major players and, no surprise, both offer their own workflows. Maintaining the integrity of the data, meeting compliance requirements, ensuring security of identity and access, all while allowing a seamless flow of transactions and information across a cloud based ecosystem is no simple task. Using open APIs and RESTful identity standards can help ease the pain of building those bridges for integration. The promise of the cloud to simplify business processes and release the burden of maintaining myriad on premise applications hides the growing complexity at work in the background. That heavy lifting may fall on the shoulders of the on premise IT staff trying to stitch together disparate cloud services with local applications.

Providers are maturing and differentiating their service offerings but the Achilles heel is integrating all the pieces from multiple sources. Whether your strategy is Cloud First, Cloud Only or Cloud Maybe, for the foreseeable future there will be a mix of on and off premise infrastructure, platforms, and services with multiple cloud providers. The complexity of integrating those into something clear, concise, and coherent for users can grow exponentially.

Before you subscribe your users to a service, look under the hood. Are the automated workflows scripted in one of the standard languages or in some proprietary secret sauce? How configurable are the workflows? Can the primary application make calls to associated apps so the user can stay in the comfort zone of navigating through just one workflow? Is the application stack open to facilitate integration with other essential applications in your organization’s portfolio? Is the integrity of your security maintained as the automated executions move across segments from compute functions to storage functions? Are there latencies in the flows that may disrupt processes?

As IT leaders we could opt to take the path of least resistance and climb aboard the good ship of a sole provider but that is a short term gain headed inevitably for a day of reckoning. Most of us don’t have this option anyway. Our businesses are too complex for any single provider to offer all the needed services. If you think you can wait it out and let your organization be late adopters to the cloud party, better polish off your resume. We have to get to the business of provisioning cloud services which change our daily lives in a good way. We must do it with a clear understanding of the shortcomings and challenges.

While the world mediated by the cloud is indeed new and exciting, this problem of making all the pieces work together is old territory. Every new technology wave goes through it’s growing pains of incompatibilities. Predictably the swell folks selling the new services portray a utopia long on promise and short on reality. As the stewards of the technology environment we have to insure that we expose the hidden parts to identify the gaps and work as a community to resolve those inconsistencies, always striving to keep it simple, open, and sustainable.

We have to recalibrate our staffs to have sufficient expertise to handle the work of integration. We need to select cloud services that are best at working together within our environments. Above all, we need to push the providers to open standards which will simplify integrations, allowing workflows to cross borders seamlessly with a minimum of complexity.

This past March Google brought together the faithful in San Francisco for Google Cloud Next and emphasized the openness of that Google Cloud. That’s the right trajectory and more of the same is needed. Juniper Networks, a major supplier of infrastructure for networks, has coined the phrase “digital cohesion” as the antidote to the digital disruption brought about by our cloud enabled world. Cohesion is a good concept as long as the glue of that cohesiveness is open and shared across the cloud ecosystem. Whereabouts unknown perhaps but not cloud hidden. Rather, cloud revealed, and shared.

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