Opinion: A response to 'cloud sprawl'

Whether you're talking about ice cream, fun in the sun or technology, there's always a point at which we've gotten too much of a good thing. In the case of cloud computing, there is already an aptly descriptive phrase for that point.

It's called cloud sprawl, and it's an unintended consequence of the newfound popularity and ease of use of cloud computing, where people store information and applications in remote data centers instead of on their own PCs.

It is exceedingly simple to create and provision cloud services. Indeed, virtually anyone with a modicum of technology knowledge can do it. But here's the rub: Cloud environments start springing up where they shouldn't, violating departmental borders, duplicating services and operating outside the auspices of the IT shop. In other words, the simplicity of cloud computing can spur a sprawl that has the potential to run amok.

The demand for cloud is not surprising. Cloud computing has proved to be faster, cheaper, easier and more responsive than traditional IT-centric computing. It's so attractive, in fact, that anecdotal information suggests that companies use the cloud without even realizing it.

Securing and enabling infrastructure inside enterprises is often a drawn-out process, whereas, in the cloud, usage is measured in hours. Traditional IT runs around the clock. Cloud services can be turned on and off on demand.

The leap to the cloud can be likened to the workgroup computing and client/server days of the mid-1990s, when you had departments or workgroups purchasing software packages on their own, often without enterprise license agreements. Companies eventually addressed this by making the business case that having 20 different groups purchasing hardware and software was terribly inefficient.

But cloud computing has returned us to those Wild West days.

It's something that, like a run on ice during a warm spell, can't easily be stopped. People are choosing to use the cloud in response to the fact that internal IT can be too slow, too expensive and too inefficient. But cloud sprawl has the potential for distributing enterprise data all over the place, without strong controls or even awareness within the IT department. Unless IT shops can get a step ahead of this by providing ways for people to utilize cloud computing inside the constructs of their domain, they will again end up with unmanaged environments.

What to do

The worst response would be for IT shops to set up special management silos for cloud services. That simply won't work because businesses crave compute capacity. If IT shops can't provide the benefits available in the cloud, people will do an end run around them. And it is very difficult to prevent people from taking advantage of something that's cheaper, faster and more efficient. The right approach is to try to co-opt services from the cloud providers, to use them as the basis of IT services, to make the internal IT shop just as fast, just as nimble and just as elastic as any of the cloud providers.

While being rigid and inflexible is a mistake, so is doing things willy-nilly without some sort of management control. There needs to be a meeting somewhere in the middle. The onus is on the CIO, who can begin by offering these services straightaway. CIOs have to provide an ease of consumption that rivals or exceeds that of the cloud providers. Their goal should be to adopt a more cloud-like approach inside the data center. CIOs shouldn't resist, as there are valuable lessons to be learned from what the cloud providers are doing. Yes, cloud providers may not have all of the enterprise's capability, but they are doing things that are very interesting and certainly demonstrate the art of the possible.

It's all about being flexible and nimble and responsive to your customers, characteristics that, in the long run, increase the value of IT. This is all part of the next-generation data center, where the challenge is to monitor and manage the technology infrastructure that enables business productivity improvements and business growth, while simultaneously focusing on reducing costs, improving operational efficiencies, ensuring security and enabling new capabilities.

Joe Tobolski is the director of cloud computing services at Accenture.

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