Monday, April 13, 2009

Outsourcing gives way to Now-sourcing via Cloud Technology

The theory behind the value of outsourcing, aside from labor arbitrage, was that the outsourcer could deliver IT resources to the business units in a more cost effective manner than the internal IT staff due to a more highly optimized resource management system. The big problem with outsourcing, however, was the enormous hurdle the IT organization faced in transitioning to the “optimized” management approach of the outsourcer. In many cases this expensive hurdle had to be crossed twice – once when the applications were “outsourced” and then again when the applications were subsequently “in-sourced” after the outsourcer failed to live up to service level expectations set during the sales pitch. Fortunately, the new architecture of cloud computing enables outsourcing to be replaced with “now sourcing” by eliminating the barriers to application delivery on third party networks.

The key to “now sourcing” is the ability to de-couple applications and data from the underlying system definitions of the internal network while simultaneously adopting a management approach that is lightweight and fault tolerant. Historically, applications were expensive to “outsource” because they were tightly coupled to the underlying systems and data of the internal network. The management systems also pre-supposed deep access to the lowest level of system structure on the network in order to hasten recovery from system faults. The internal IT staff had “preferences” for hardware, operating systems, application servers, storage arrays, etc., as did the outsourcer. And they were inevitably miles apart in both the brands and structure not to mention differences in versions, release levels, and the management system itself. Even with protocols that should be a “standard,” each implementation still had peculiarities based upon vendor and release level. NFS is a great example. Sun's implementation of NFS on Solaris was different than NetApp's implementation on their filers, leading to expensive testing and porting cycles in order to attain the benefits of “outsourcing.”

I believe a by-product of the “cloud” craze will be new technology, protocols, and standards that are designed from the beginning to enable applications to run across multiple networks with a much simpler management approach. A great example is server virtualization coupled with application delivery standards like OVF. With X86 as a de facto machine standard and virtualization as implemented by hypervisor technology like Xen and VMware, applications can be “now sourced” to providers like Amazon and RackSpace with very little cost associated with the “migration.”

Some will argue that we are simply trading one protocol trap for another. For example, Amazon does not implement Xen with OVF in mind as an application delivery standard. Similarly, VMware has special kernel requirements for the virtual machines defined within OVF in order to validate your support agreement. Amazon's S3 cloud storage protocol is different than a similar REST protocol associated with EMC's new Atmos cloud storage platform. And the list of “exceptions” goes on and on.

Even in the face of these obvious market splinters, I still believe we are heading to a better place. I am optimistic because all of these protocols and emerging standards are sufficiently abstracted from the hardware that translations can be done on the fly – as with translations between Amazon's S3 and EMC's Atmos. Or the penalty of non-conformance is so trivial it can be ignored – as with VMware's kernel support requirements which do not impact actual run-time performance.

The other requirement for “now sourcing” that I mentioned above was a fault tolerant, lightweight approach to application management. The system administrators need to be able to deliver and manage the applications without getting into the low level guts of the systems themselves. As with any “new” approach that requires even the slightest amount of “change” or re-factoring, this requirement to re-think the packaging and management of the applications will initially be an excuse for the IT staff to “do nothing.” In the face of so many competing priorities, even subtle application packaging and management changes become the last item on the ever lengthening IT “to do” list – even when the longer term savings are significant. But, since “now sourcing” is clearly more palatable to IT than “outsourcing” (and more effective too), perhaps there is some hope that these new cloud architectures will find a home inside the IT department sooner rather than later.

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