Clouds Are Like Buses: Public Isn’t Always Better

school bus

Since the concept of “private cloud” was introduced, there have been efforts by certain people to prove it “wrong” or show that it doesn’t make sense when compared with the public cloud. This seems like a silly crusade, not because I’m a supporter of private cloud (which I am), but because both provide tremendous value if you actually understand the value that “cloud” has delivered to the industry.

But Sinclair, cloud delivers value because of the economies of scale it brings through aggregation, etc., etc., and so on,” you say? Perhaps, but the value of cloud computing has much more to do with its definition in the abstract and less so to do with its availability in a public form factor.  James Urquhart recently wrote “Why definitions of cloud are creating ‘false’ debates,” where he hypothesizes (accurately so) that the difference of opinion is that some characterize “cloud” as a business model, while others as an operations model.

Clearly, when looked at from the business model point of view, the concept of cloud makes significant sense in a public fashion. But as an operations model — a model where resources are pooled together behind abstractions that dynamically manage applications and resources — it has significant positive implications in the enterprise. This might be easier to explain through an analogy of sorts.

Let’s suppose, for the purposes of this thought experiment, that the bus (the big automobile that carries lots of people) has yet to be invented. A politician notices the inefficiency of always using a car that fits no more than four people, particularly in the case where lots of people are going back and forth between two cities — the politician’s home city and a neighboring city. This politician decided that the cities should operate a municipal (or public) mass transit service to transport a significant number of people per trip between the two cities, for some small fee per person. The politician commissions the invention of the bus to transport 50-100 people at a time. The idea of offering this as a public service is powerful, and as the number of passengers grows, it starts to experience significant economies of scale.

All is well, until some suggest that the bus itself is useful in contexts outside of public transit. Schools want their own buses to pick up and drop off children; prisons determine buses are a good way to transport large numbers of prisoners; someone wants to start a luxury tour service via bus; and movie stars that hate to fly feel buying a bus is an effective way to travel along with their friends, family and staff.

The politician becomes angry, stating that all of those use cases are best satisfied via the public transport system she developed, and these “private” uses are “false mass transit services” because they could never reach the economies that the public service offers. Furthermore, she argues, these proponents of “private mass transit” are getting in their own way because the public transit system is not only cost effective, but safe and generally on time, and all of the constraints that these other use cases point to in usage of public transit are merely “excuses.” The fact of the matter is, to a bus-rider, riding in a bus provides the same end utility regardless of how the bus is provided – they get where they want without having to drive a car.

Does this seem awkward and familiar at the same time? It does to me. The problem is that the politician is lumping the invention of the bus — the technology necessary for public mass transit to work – and the public mass transit system itself into a single cohesive model, and taking the stance that the real marginal savings of public mass transit is the only economic output to take into consideration. Others have decoupled the bus from the public transit service, saying that although there is huge value in public transit, the bus itself adds so much value to a huge number of use cases (such as prisoner transport) that are ill suited for public mass transit because of constraints.

Without the bus, those “private” use cases are still using four-passenger cars for all their transport needs. However, the bus solves a significant number of problems relating to moving large numbers of people relatively efficiently without having to adopt public mass transit. Similar to Urquhart’s assessment, the problem in this bus analogy is that someone is focused on the public-transit business model while others are focusing on the operations-model efficiencies that the bus can bring to other use cases.

Confounding cloud computing from a service point of view with the technology that enables cloud services is terribly misguided. The fact of the matter is that tge technology behind cloud services is extremely valuable on its own, just like a bus is extremely value outside of the public mass transit context. Take Platform as a Service, for instance. PaaS provides a tremendous amount of agility through…

  1. The pooling of resources (servers, load balancers, etc.) into a single abstract pool of resources
  2. Automation of devops workflows, thereby increasing time to market
  3. Utilization boosts (in multitenant environments)
  4. Simplified management around previously complex topics (e.g., scaling out, etc.)

This value has nothing to do with economies of scale or outsourced IT, but has everything to do with a paradigm shift in the deployment and management of applications. If an organization chooses to layer a PaaS tier – a private PaaS – atop its own infrastructure, whether it be dozens, hundreds or thousands of servers, it will experience genuine value. The technology developed to supply PaaS is much more useful than just the fact that it’s offered as a service — it can drive a whole new era of efficiency as a layer in the private cloud stack, on top of an enterprise’s existing infrastructure.

This is why “false cloud” articles, like one by Phil Wainewright titled “Private cloud discredited, part 2,” disturb me. They are too myopic in terms of debate basis, focusing on economies of scale and not much else, and fail to separate the invention of cloud enabling software layers like PaaS (the bus) from their first use in the public cloud context (public mass transit). Just as throwing away the bus in any context other than public mass transit system makes little sense, dismissing the massive efficiencies achievable by deploying technologies like private PaaS would be crazy. As David Linthicum put it in a recent post: “[M]any fail to accept there may be times when the architectural patterns of public clouds best serve the requirements of the business when implemented locally — in a private cloud.”

Sinclair Schuller is co-founder and CEO of Apprenda.

Image courtesy of Flickr user KB35.

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