Opinion: Confusing clouds and hot air

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Opinion: Confusing clouds and hot air

Should telcos stick to their knitting?

As telcos rush to the market with “cloud” offerings, David Havyatt suggests they need to focus on any-to-any connectivity and leave applications to others.

One of the recurring images in television coverage of climate change is of a coal fired power station with plumes of steam bellowing forth.  It is steam in that cloud, not carbon dioxide, but it doesn’t seem to bother the broadcasters.

It seems that telcos and the IT industry are getting to be just as careless in the imagery of “the cloud”.

Whether its AAPT’s Google-based hosted apps, Optus’ Cloud Solutions or Telstra’s ‘Network Computing’, there is a danger in labelling “cloud” what is effectively an online form of IT outsourcing.

The meaning of clouds

Telcos can perhaps be forgiven, since they have some claim to ownership of the term “cloud”.  It is derived from the diagram that has been used for decades now to represent “the part of the network the details of which are not under current consideration.” 

More recently the cloud has been labelled “the Internet”, but it originally was used to represent the PSTN. 

Customers like the banks have started to learn that buying an online outsourced solution is just the same as buying hardware and software, only the migration issue to the next solution might be harder rather than easier.  Learning about “cloud computing” contracts looks to be pretty timely!

It is understandable that the telcos think that anything on their side of the interface is “in the cloud.”  But the real concept of the cloud is much more powerful. 

The deeper concept of cloud computing is not one where the computing happens across the other side of a network boundary, but when the computing itself is dispersed through the network. 

Google itself is an example, with a vast global network of processors; but that is an entirely in-house model.

Tom Jenkins of content management software firm Open Text addressed a Committee for the Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) meeting in March on the topic “Managing Content in the Cloud – The key to creating competitive advantage in the digital economy.” 

I prefer the definition of Tom Jenkins of Open Text, who defines cloud content as essentially rich, mobile and social, not just somewhere else. 

The cloud entails the delivery of content and applications in a widely-dispersed manner with well-managed permissions that maximise availability without limiting security. 

The challenge of clouds

Hosted applications are just an alternative form of software ownership unless they come with tools to manage content in a collaborative fashion.  If you just want to save on software costs, use OpenOffice, not GoogleApps. 

But the challenge is creating that accessibility without at the same time being locked into the software environment of the vendor. 

Ultimately cloud computing rests on the ability to run end-to-end applications on the Internet, ideally with defined service quality and irrespective of the network carriers involved. 

 Cisco’s David Meyer told an IEEE conference in October 2008;

The lack of a reasoned approach to both the IPv4 run-out problem (data plane) and the growth of routing state (control plane) are life-threatening to the (end-to-end) Internet we all know and love

The first is the address space issue.  Current solutions to the IPv4 address run out that rely upon network address translation will disrupt end-to-end applications.  Telcos are at the forefront of telling policy makers not to worry, because telcos regard end-to-end applications as the enemy.

The second issue is harder to describe and to address, but ultimately revolves around the rate of increase of router tables.  Historically the problem has been solved by throwing more processing at it, but there are some who think there is now a need for a fundamental redesign of the network architecture. 

The question is - where should the telcos sit in all this? 

In 1960, Theodore Levitt wrote in the Harvard Business Review that telcos “let others take customers away from them because they assumed themselves to be in the railroad business rather than the transportation business.” 

Seldom has an idea been more passionately embraced by business executives.  No amount of invocation by management guru Tom Peters to “stick to the knitting” has dissuaded them – they want to stick to their craft and embrace crochet and macramé as well.

In particular, telecommunications providers want to variously describe themselves as in the “ICT business” or as “media-comms” companies.  But what consumers value in their telecommunications services is very rarely their content – but rather the ability to connect anything to anything, anytime and anywhere. 

I believe the telco’s focus needs to be on being in the telecommunications business.

It has been said in business that nothing happens until a sale is made.  Telcos need to promote the new message that nothing happens until data has been sent and received.

Should telcos see themselves as ICT businesses or should they focus on any-to-any connectivity?

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