Last night NZICT Group and EMA hosted a feisty debate about cloud computing. The moot was, “Is the cloud all hot air or the biggest game changer we’ve ever seen?”

The speakers were:

  • Andrew Crabb (Head of Business and Government, TelstraClear),
  • Doug Wilson (CIO, Automobile Assocation),
  • Ben Kepes (Business Analyst and Entrepreneur), and
  • Brett Roberts (Consultant).

The debate was moderated by Doug Casement (CIO of Renaissance and industry commentator).

The debate was presented with colour and passion, and as a member of the audience it was lots of fun. At least for those of us whose first thought on hearing the word cloud is computing, not the weather or a venue on the Auckland waterfront!

The “Game Changers” argued that cloud computing is like a restaurant service. You can choose the restaurant, and the meal. When you're done, you pay the bill and walk away. In contrast building dedicated IT infrastructure was compared to building the kitchen, hiring staff, and creating a menu, all just to have a meal.

Team “Hot Air” challenged this, saying cloud computing is nothing new. The “cloud”, they argued, is today's marketing buzzword. What has changed, they suggested,  is the rise of the Internet. The only common definition of cloud services seems to be what is delivered over the Internet. Cloud services are just another example of selling computational services.

Since the dawn of computing, resources have been expensive and subject to varying demand, and by sharing the resources it's possible to achieve economies of scale, and that model dates back at least to computing bureau services.

Reliability, the “Patriot Act”, and questions about transparency were hoisted as potential show-stopper issues.

The “Game Changers” quipped in reply that there were a “number of red herrings flying through the air”.

The Patriot Act question was not discussed in detail, but readers interested in this topic might like to refer to my colleague's article about Patriot Act myths and reality. A key take-away is that US law enforcement demands can apply to information held anywhere in the world if the provider has a US presence and this isn’t by any means unique to cloud services, so debate about where the data is stored is often beside the point.

The “Game Changers” conceded that the cloud might not be a major technological advancement, but argued that it most certainly is a business revolution. It puts technology in the hands of everyone without them needing to build their own IT infrastructure. It is a new wave in democratising IT.

They went on to argue that frequency of outages making headline news should not be confused with frequency of outages that actually occur. The uptime of reputable cloud computing providers was, they argued, significantly better than that of typical on-premises IT infrastructure when real-world data is compared.

“If you're a cloud provider your bread and butter is providing uptime.” In contrast, most enterprise IT systems are just another thing they have to do to keep the business runnning. “Who has more motivation to ensure uptime, and the resources to invest in world leading technology and security systems?”

The cloud can be faster, cheaper and better - allowing businesses to get on with their core business.

Team “Hot Air” shot back that cloud services are not as reliable as electricity yet. Transparency and accountability are not uniform across cloud providers, nor is the ability to move systems and data usefully back in-house from a cloud provider.

In a slight move to the middle ground, even “Hot Air” acknowledged that the cloud is real, and it makes sense in certain circumstances. But despite the hype cycle, it won't replace everything, new IT models tend to grow the IT system rather than sweep everything else away. People want choices. “Mainframes are still around today.”

It was fun to attend the debate, each team did a great job of advocating the positions they had been asked to represent. 

Where does Microsoft see opportunity for NZ?Cloud Power logo

We agree with the “Game Changers” that cloud computing, or whichever buzzword is used, is revolutionary.

The cloud offers enormous opportunities to accelerate scientific research with on-demand supercomputing, to create efficiencies for businesses, educators and government, to enrich the experiences of individuals at home, at work, and at school. It's also a fantastic platform for supporting new enterprises and exporting new innovation from New Zealand to the world.

These aren't just words, we've been walking the talk with serious investments in bringing cloud technology to our customers and partners over the years.

For those who want to build their own clouds, we have the necessary software virtualisation and automation tools today, and those are just the beginning. The next version of Windows Server will place further emphasis on cloud building.

“We have been able to apply many of our insights from Windows Azure to Windows Server 8, enabling us to deliver world class cloud capabilities to enterprises of all sizes. Windows Server 8 will be a big leap forward, especially in terms of helping IT organizations progress beyond virtualization to build private cloud services.”

Windows Server 8 - An Introduction - Bill Laing, Corporate Vice President, Server and Cloud (technical details in the Windows Server 8 IaaS Whitepaper)

At the same time, Microsoft continues to innovate with its public cloud offerings.

Windows Azure provides both Platform as a Service and Infrastructure as a Service capabilities. And it’s not just for Microsoft's .NET platforms. We’re continually improving our support for choices for building applications and websites on Windows Azure with languages like PHP, Ruby, Python and Java. 

We also have a number of rapidly growing Software as a Service offerings, such as Office 365 for email, documents, communication and collaboration, CRM Online for relationship management, and Windows Intune for computer maintenance and security.

But we agree with team "Hot Air" that cloud computing won't simply replace other options any time soon, and that it will increase the ecosystem of opportunities and IT service options. The decision will continue to be in customers' hands, with a choice of what to move to the cloud, or out of it - and when. The role of service providers and IT professionals will evolve and adapt, just as it has throughout the history of compting.

Transparency and accountability, particularly about data and security practices, are important to many organisations. My colleague recently wrote an article about trustworthy computing and cloud services which discussed these elements in some detail.

Transparency for New Zealand cloud customers

Given the discussion about transparency and accountability, it is also timely that Xero has sparked a discussion about what is needed to give potential customers of diverse cloud services a statement on key issues in a format that allows them to more easily assess and compare competing providers.

In the initial phase of the project, participants have shown a strong interest in find out what is available in other countries. Learning from the work that has already been done is sensible, and harmonisation makes sense for service providers and customers that have operations in more than one country.

We strongly support providing customers with good information to make fact based decisions about cloud services, and Microsoft is a member of the Cloud Industry Forum and the Cloud Security Alliance both of which have done excellent work in this area.

We look forward to supporting New Zealand's work to assess what is needed here so that diverse cloud service providers can provide customers with the information they need.

By Waldo Kuipers, Corporate Affairs Manager, Microsoft New Zealand Limited