Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Cloud, old idea but a new innovation.

There has been a lot of internet discussion recently over whether the cloud is anything new, if you're confused hopefully the following will help clarify the situation. Before getting into the nitty gritty, let's clear up some terms.

From Jan Fagerberg's work, Innovation is the first-ish attempt to carry out an idea into practice. It is the embodiment, combination, or synthesis of knowledge in original, relevant or new products, processes or services.

I say first-ish as it is notoriously difficult to determine who was the first person (or group) to put an idea into practice. As Eliot Sivowitch once postulated, in his Law of Firsts;

“Whenever you prove who was first, the harder you look you will find someone else who was more first. And if you persist in your efforts you find that the person whom you thought was first was third.”

An idea is an image or a concept or an abstraction. As John Locke said “it being that term which, I think, serves best to stand for whatsoever is the object of understanding when a man thinks”.

Discovery or invention are processes that result in the generation of new concepts or postulated entities or devices. Both of these processes involve serendipity, questioning and the use of analogy.

So how about the cloud then?

The cloud simply represents the shift of the computing stack (from the applications we write to the hardware we use) from a product to a service based economy. This shift is in a transitional stage at the moment, so you're equally likely to hear about product-like internal clouds as much as service-like external clouds. Consumers and vendors will take time to get used to this change.

However, the provision of this computing stack is not something new. Today, the use of computing hardware is not an innovation and the ideas of providing computing hardware as commodity-like products (standard servers) or as commodity-like services (through network connected virtualised machines) are several decades old. However, whilst the ideas are old, isn't the act of putting this into practice a relatively recent (the last decade or so)?

Well yes, it is and that's the point where confusion reigns because whilst computing infrastructure is not new nor is the provision of an activity as a service, isn't the combination of the two new?

In reality this is simply the natural development of an activity from a product to a service based economy. It doesn't repeat the original innovation of computing infrastructure, in much the same way that "car hire" doesn't recreate the original innovation of the motor car. It's less of an innovation and more of an expected evolution.

Unfortunately we use the term innovation everywhere and whilst you might think this doesn't matter, it does. The methods by which you manage an activity vary with whether it's an innovation or more commodity-like and not with whether it has this new feature (often called product innovation) or operational improvement (often called service innovation).

So is the cloud new? In practice it is, in concept it isn't. Is it an innovation, not really but lots of people will call it so.

I mention this also, because a friend recently described me as a thought leader on cloud computing. This is completely untrue and it would be fraudulent for me to even imply that this was the case. I might have been publicly speaking about commoditisation of IT over the past four years but as far as I'm aware, the real thought leadership in this field occurred decades ago.