Early experiments in cloud computing
- 08 April, 2008 09:03
Testing out online IDEs
Less mature than the cloud infrastructure plays are the app dev and app hosting platforms provisioned over the Internet. These are intended for apps that will be delivered over the Internet and through the browser anyhow, such as online commerce and services and apps delivered to mobile and remote employees. So it's no surprise that most early adopters of these online IDEs are themselves Web-based service providers.
A typical example is Jobscience, a provider of recruiting services. The company had been using Salesforce.com's customization tools, so it had gown comfortable with the underlying service availability. At the same time, the company struggled to manage its Adobe ColdFusion-based server environment, so CEO Ted Elliott began looking at using an outside hosting firm to simplify its ability to provision customers over the Internet. "But they manage to the stack, not to the app," Elliott says, and he wanted an environment that was operationally optimal, not just technically correct. So he turned to Salesforce.com's Force.com platform as a service to create and host the apps.
Elliott's biggest challenge was internal: His developers didn't want to let go the control over the app environment. But now, "they're starting to see what they can build that doesn't exist [in Force.com] while using the basics [in Force.com] such as calendaring and scheduling," he notes. So the in-house developers get to innovate differentiating apps, not build the basics that everyone else already has.
A more in-the-enterprise example is Intuitive Surgical, a surgical-robotics maker. It is involved in clinical trials of its equipment, and so needs to collect and distribute data across a range of clinical facilities, all of which are separate firms or entities. That data is inconsistent and hard to integrate to get meaningful analysis done. So Intuitive Surgical used Force.com to create a forms-based app to collect that clinical data from all trial participants. "We could build it using just their tools, so in essence, there was no programming," says Mark Burns, a clinical data specialist at the company.
But while the app is handy to collect data, Intuitive Surgical can't use it to submit trial results to the FDA. "It doesn't have the rigor that the FDA would require," he notes, around auditing of the data and tracking everything's that done to ensure the data has not been compromised or altered.
A long way to the cloud
Despite the successful examples of the first wave of infrastructure-oriented cloud computing, it's early days for these IT-oriented forms of Internet-based provisioning, and any large-scale shift to them is a good decade away, notes Ben Pring, a senior analyst at Gartner. But it is coming.
Although it can be easy to set up an S3 account using just a credit card, as the Times did, provider availability is a big factor, notes Jon Williams, CIO of Kaplan Test Prep and Admission. For example, Amazon's S3 had an outage in February, notes Burton Group's Simpson. "If half the IT infrastructure is unavailable, that's a difficult situation," he exclaims.
Some companies can't rely on Internet-provisioned infrastructure services because of regulatory compliance and security issues, adds Williams. "Many have scary compliance issues. How do you demonstrate what you are doing is in compliance when it is done outside?" says Burton Group's Simpson. He notes that the early infrastructure services aren't audited, or take the liability, for security or compliance requirements. Such issues have kept Merrill Lynch from using cloud-provisioned infrastructure. "We're very bound by regulators in terms of client data and country-of-origin issues, so it's very difficult to use the cloud," says Rupert Brown, a chief architect at the financial services firm.
To the degree that cloud computing raises risk, it will inhibit adoption in equal measure, particularly among enterprises. But every large company has noncritical areas where low cost of entry and quick deployment trump reliability, and a significant number of small businesses fall in the same category. For them, experimenting with cloud computing could put them on good footing for an agile, connected future. That's exactly what pioneers like Nasdaq and the New York Times have found.
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