“The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms,” — Socrates
“If you wish to converse with me, define your terms.” — Voltaire
As Socrates and Voltaire knew, meaningful discourse depends on a shared understanding of the topic under discussion. To have shared understanding, clearly defined and agreed terms are prerequisites.
In the sphere of cloud computing, defined terms and shared understanding have been at a premium. Protracted debates have ensued regarding the definitions of various permutations of cloud computing. Debate and discourse should eventually resolve into enlightenment, but discussion of cloud computing often produces more heat than light. It’s been that way for a long time.
Consensus Hard to Find
This year, the latest cloud-computing flashpoint involved a battle over the definition of the private cloud. As far as I can tell, the battle still rages with no end in sight. Many definitions have been advanced by a number of notable individuals and groups — and sometimes heated discussion has followed their introduction — but the disputation still hasn’t resulted in consensus and shared understanding, though some organizations, such as the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), have made valiant efforts to deliver much-needed clarity.
Technical criteria aside — such characteristics and qualifiers have been discussed at length by accomplished software architects, illustrious infrastructure personages, and all manner of engineers and market analysts — what seems to be occurring is a power struggle.
Our philosopher friends quoted above observed that a solid definition of terms was the starting point for meaningful conversation and wisdom. That’s true, of course. But it’s also true, as political philosophers will tell us, that knowledge — which is based on the understanding that accrues from agreed terminology — is power.
Battle for Control
Accordingly, we can understand the battleground of cloud computing — some have called it a “circus,” but a circus aims at entertainment and amusement — if we consider its political aspects. It’s here that we can see the central conflict.
On one side, we have an established order or status quo — represented by the way IT has been supplied, delivered, and managed until now — arrayed against the forces of change, represented by cloud computing’s purest adherents and most passionate proponents. Each side wants to control the discussion, which is why the battle over terminology is so intense and why definitions are constantly revised and challenged.
For those waging the battle, the fight itself makes sense. Each side, as noted, wants to control terminology so that it can condition and facilitate a desired result. Unfortunately, disinterested observers, including enterprises and organizations trying to set their IT-related roadmaps and strategies, are confused by the tumult. They’re not getting what they need from the principals in the debate.
Cutting Through the Noise
Fortunately, there is a way for these organizations to cut through the noise, to gain the insight and understanding they require to set their course and ascertain whether, how, and where new methodologies, service models, and technologies are applicable.
How they do it, of course, is by being as self-interested as the disputants on either side of the cloud-computing debate. What they must do is demand clear answers as to how what’s being pushed at them will add value to their organizations.
When a vendor or service provider makes a pitch, prospective customers must step back and consider the implications. Who benefits? Is it just the vendor or service provider making the pitch, either by retarding change or hastening it, or is it the customer, which must support established applications and processes while charting an assured course toward lower costs, higher productivity, and greater overall efficiency? The answer to that question is the real litmus test, for the solicitous vendor as well as the prospective customer.
It is What it Does
According mathematician-cum-philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, a thing is what it does. If a vendor is pushing a hard sell on the public or private cloud, customers should challenge the vendor to clearly state the customer-centric benefits, costs, and implications of the proposed offering. Then, after the vendor has made its case, the customer can evaluate it. In the end, each individual customer should and must make its own decision, based on its objectives, its needs, its requirements, its risk tolerance, and its culture.
If there is no common industry-wide definition — and the vendor community has been responsible for the cloud-computing muddle — then each prospective customer will have to reach his or her own conclusions about what’s really being discussed. That’s how it needs to be, anyway.