Ebola, #bearselfies show how IT stopped fearing public cloud

Enterprise IT ditches caution, fear of irrelevance, follows end users into public cloud

Grizzly Bear
Credit: Terry L Spivey, Terry Spivey Photography,

There's a strange, misanthropic common thread running through stories in the news about Ebola quarantines, the rush of enterprises to the public cloud and the increasingly common but shockingly still non-fatal fad of taking selfies with wild bears.

There's almost no overlap in the substance of the stories, but all three demonstrate a fundamental characteristic of humans in the modern world: We are good at identifying theoretical risks, but really bad at knowing which threats we should actually fear and which are worth putting up with for the potential benefit of having survived them.

Posting a photo of yourself in the woods with a sort-of-dangerous but very photogenic bear in the not-quite-distant-enough background will get you some likes on Instagram, so who could say no to taking a shot when it presents itself?

On the other hand, how many people are so desperate for Likes or lulz that they'd do something as Darwinian as standing still for a photo with their backs turned to a grizzly that is so close even other grizzlies would think being there isn't a great idea.

The "mobs" of tourists taking extraordinary risks to get a selfie with a real bear have grown so large the U.S. Forest Service – which is protecting bears minding their own business, not tourists who aren't – has has threatened to shut down parts of the Lake Tahoe wilderness area if the selfies don't stop.

But if humans are that insensitive to an imminent threat so close they can actually smell it, why would the government of a whole state go to court to try to keep a woman under house arrest for having consorted with sick people and gotten a clean bill of health afterward?

Because Ebola.

Maine nurse Kari Hickox passed all the medical tests needed to prove she wasn't infectious after her return from a month-long trip to treat Ebola victims in Liberia with Doctors Without Borders. Maine's governor imposed a three-week quarantine – and posted troopers outside Hickox' house to make sure it was enforced – due to the irrational but popular fear of the microscopically small chance anyone would be infected by a zombie-apocalypse-movie-inspiring hemorrhagic fever that kills large percentages of the very small number of people who get it in horrifyingly unpleasant ways.

Maine couldn't legally lock Hickox in her house for three weeks, but the popular fear, however irrational, was a great enough force to justify requiring her to keep getting checkups and stick to other parts of the quarantine routine, according to the Oct. 31 decision of the chief judge of Maine's District Court – who reached his decision after a hearing held by telephone because the court didn't want to be any closer to Hickox than that.

Too much fear over the tiny chance of slowly developing, controllable consequences in one situation, too little fear of the imminent threat of painful, bloody death in another?

That's the pattern that connects Ebola, bear selfies and the huge reversal enterprise IT departments seem to be going through on the public cloud. After years of staying away due to fully justified fears about security and manageability, big companies are now expanding in serious ways into the public cloud despite changes that have, if anything, made the danger worse.

Or, it probably did. IT has no way of knowing.

In a September survey 54 percent of IT execs told the Cloud Security Alliance (CSA) their companies use 10 or fewer cloud apps.

An October analysis of network traffic shows the actual number of cloud apps in use at an average big company is 579, according to an October report from cloud security company NetSkope.

NetSkope also found 70 percent of data uploaded to cloud storage services went to services that don't separate data from different customers on different hardware and that 21 percent of data uploaded to business-intelligence apps was uploaded to services whose terms claim the vendor, not the customer owns data.

No wonder a large-scale survey of IT decision makers at large organizations found that confidence in the cloud is at an all-time low, with 82 percent of U.S.-based IT execs saying security is their top concern about the cloud, according to a July survey of 640 IT decision makers at mid- to large-sized organizations around the world by British telecom company BT.

Clearly, given the lack of IT's ability to even see most cloud-based apps, the rational decision is still to stay away from the public cloud.

That is not the plan.

Seventy-nine percent of U.S.-based IT execs told BT they plan to increase their spending on public cloud – spending the Telecommunications Industry Association expects will rise more than 61 percent by 2017 – from $40 billion now to $64.5 billion.

The turnaround is motivated not by sudden recklessness, but by a huge shift of end users from inside the firewall to the public cloud – a movement that is still accelerating, according to IDC's latest cloud-spending reports.

IT's objections about cloud security were legitimate, and still are.

The biggest part of IT's revulsion for the crowd wasn't due to security, though. It came from an overwhelming fear that the public cloud would become the technology that finally made technology skills and experience irrelevant and turn technologists into contract managers who might as well be ordering stapling supplies as supercomputers.

That fear, not only still exists, it has actually been reinforced by the growth of SaaS use that has marginalized some segments of IT and turned "shadow IT" into the real thing.

So going along with a risky decision driven by end users who have spent five years dodging every effort to quarantine them or even suggest they not put their heads in the grizzly's mouth is more than a policy decision for IT people.

It's an existential risk – the choice to move into an environment that seems designed to replace you and try to do your job there anyway.

It's also an admission that, in at least this one time, IT's safe decision turned out to be the wrong one and the risky choice taken by end users who often saw the bear but not the teeth turned out to be the direction both needed to go.

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