Bob Balaban's Blog


    Bob Balaban


    "I’ve looked at clouds from both sides, now"

    Bob Balaban  June 16 2008 01:50:08 PM
    I've been working with Google Apps APIs and trying out various features of the mail, calendar and contacts services (products?) for a few months now. I think I'm getting a handle on the whole "cloud computing" thing. So I thought I'd collect a few observations in a blog post and see what y'all think as well. This is neither a sales job nor a trash job on Google, nor is it meant to be a comprehensive feature comparison of Google Apps vs. Notes. I'm really using Google Apps as a prominent example of "cloud computing", and starting to think about the implications for the collaborative software world.

    What is 'cloud computing'?

    Here's a Business Week article that attempts to define it. I think it does a reasonable job, and it points to IBM as a technology leader in that space. But while I"m sure that IBM has pockets of advanced technology and even offerings in the "cloud", it seems fairly obvious to me that Google is far and away both the technology and the market leader in cloud computing (Microsoft has stuff too, naturally). One could argue with that conclusion, I suppose, and point out that while Google has more offerings in the consumer/mass-market space (gadgets, youtube, etc), they are not necessarily the leader in "enterprise" markets.

    Maybe. I don't know, and that's not the point I'm trying to make, anyway: this isn't a vendor comparison.

    To me, the basic point (or maybe there's more than one point here) of cloud computing appears to be this: cloud providers (if we can call them that) will not only host apps for you, they will supply you with virtually unlimited storage space, and virtually unlimited scalability of access, as well.

    Sign up for a free GMail account with Google, and you get 6 GIG of storage. Sign up for a $50 per seat per year (+ or -) enterprise account, and each GMail user gets 25 GIG of storage, plus more features. That's a lot of email. On the scalability front, Google will happily host your enterprise email regardless of whether you have 3 seats, or 300,000 seats. They offer good searching (duh), security, spam filtering, archiving and so on. And you hardly ever have to delete anything, with that much space available.

    Major Benefits of 'cloud computing'

    The biggest argument I see cloud vendors making for people (and companies) to switch over is the economic one: when you go to Google Apps you're not just going to a "Software As A Service" (SAAS) model, you're outsourcing your entire email infrastructure. No more in-house maintenance of hardware and networking, no more paying pesky admins to wake up in the middle of the night and fix stuff that broke, no more having to re-evaluate and do software/hardware upgrades every year. Google handles ALL of that for you, and it's pretty cheap. You just hired another 100 employees? Go online and create accounts for them on your hosted site (or write a program to do it for you via the Google provisioning APIs), and you're done.

    Google never goes down, they handle all the backups, authentication, access control, routing, everything. And it's all accessible with a browser.

    What are you giving up for 'cloud computing'?

    So what's the downside? Well, you do give up a few things:

     - Functionality. Let's face it, GMail is not the best email system out there, feature-wise or UI-wise. It's still in "beta" 4 years after its launch, it does WAY less than, say, Notes. Same for the Google Apps calendar (one annoying example: they don't allow attachments on meeting invitations...)

     - "Ownership". By that I mean that when all your email is in GMail, you don't ever know where it really is. Same with all the other "cloud" apps -- your data could be anywhere. For a lot of people this isn't a big problem (once they get over that initial slightly queasy feeling, especially when they remember how much money they're saving). But, for some people, it's a show-stopper. Accounting firms, for example. In some countries (and in some states within the U.S.), regulated firms are prohibited from storing sensitive data outside the boundaries of their political unit. Other firms worry that data stored on Google servers that happen to reside in the United States might be vulnerable to arbitrary U.S. Patriot Act subpoena.

     - Application deployment. Email is one thing, enterprise applications (especially custom-built ones) are quite another. You can't go to Google and ask them to give you a Domino server to run your mission critical apps. You can deploy Web apps on Google now, but only if they're written in Python (or something like that). Maybe that will change, but in the meantime, I think most companies who may want to use Google for email will hang on to their app servers for quite a while. But that leads to what I call the "coexistence" question: Since quite a lot of Notes/Domino based applications use email messaging as a transport (many workflow apps, for example, send email notifications to users), how does that work when my email moves to the cloud? Do I have to rewrite all those apps? Yikes. (Quick plug here - no, you don't. Binary Tree (and some other vendors) have coexistence solutions you can, uh, buy).

    Bottom line?

    Are the negatives show-stoppers? Clearly not, Google (and Microsoft, and maybe even IBM someday) seem to be very happy with the rate of growth of their cloud offerings.

    On the first point (Functionality) -- yeah, ok, maybe it's not so great now, but it'll get better over time. And there are evidently a lot of CIOs who look at the cost savings and (perhaps, I'm just speculating here) say to themselves, "Wow! My bonus is going to be HUGE this year. I guess my users can live without a few bells and whistles on their email. No more whining about increasing the mail quotas! Yee-HAH!"

    On the "Ownership" issue, obviously this is a nonstarter for some types of organizations (I don't see the CIA or the military going for it anytime soon). For others, it's just another cost issue: Google will (for a fee) offer certain guarantees about where your organization's data will reside. If you're in (I'm just making up this example) say, the Cook Islands (yes, it's a real place, go look it up), and you really, really, need all your bytes to stay in the Cook Islands, and you can show Google that there's enough like-minded organizations in the Cook Islands to make some money, then maybe Google would simply build a data center there. Or, maybe not, and you find another solution.

    As far as coexistence goes, there are technology solutions, and if you have really important apps that you want to keep on Notes, then the cost is still probably worth it. Careful planning is required, and YMMV.

    I could go on (and on), about APIs, RESTful interfaces, message interoperability architectures, you name it. BUT, I won't, this post is already long enough. Maybe I'll do a Part 2, if there's interest.

    What I REALLY want is for YOU to tell me what you think -- impressions, experiences, razzing, you know, the usual.

    And, in the end, "It's cloud's illusions I recall. I really don't know clouds at all!"

    (Need expert application development architecture/coding help? Contact me at: bbalaban,
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