As I was reading the recent article by preeminent cloud expert Bernard Golden predicting the long, slow demise of private cloud, I was reminded of the “Bring out your dead” scene in Monty Python’s Holy Grail. In that scene, the old man who is still very much alive objects to being placed on the death cart, before being summarily dispatched to by a sudden blow to the head. Bernard makes a great case for why public cloud computing has been and will continue to be so successful. Indeed in my lifetime I do not think that I have seen a company the size of Amazon growing as fast as AWS is growing now. Yet lifetimes are on a relative scale.
On a long enough time scale, death and immortality are indistinguishable for the purposes of human beings. For example, it is perfectly accurate to say that the sun is also dying. Our star, the source of all life on our planet, will ultimately exhaust its supply of hydrogen. In about 5 billion years, the sun will ultimately grow so large as to engulf the Earth, totally destroying the planet in the process. While we know for a fact the sun is dying on a very long timescale, its not a good use of our time to plan for this extinction event. Much can happen in 5 billion years that is unknown. We may not even be here when the time comes. Or we may not even be exactly human anymore.
Let’s not equate private cloud with private infrastructure because these are not the same thing. Technology has become so embedded in the lives of people and companies that we are not even sure when we are using it anymore. There is privately owned infrastructure literally everywhere, and the trend is for more, not less of it. In the early days of the Internet, we used to joke that it was only a matter of time before your toaster had an IP address. The so-called Internet of Things, the proliferation of internet connected devices, is occurring on a scale that is almost unimaginable. The need to manage these legions might easily lead to a kind of data center renaissance. I would be shocked, by the way, if those data centers didn’t look suspiciously like private clouds.
I wish to offer you an alternate prediction, and it is this: The death of privately owned infrastructure, if it happens, will be so far in the future that your great-great-great grandchildren will still be running data centers of some kind. Private cloud is not dying or even sick – it is undead. It will go on living indefinitely seemingly unaware of its deteriorated state. What is dying is not private cloud or private infrastructure, but IT itself. For the last 25 years IT was a kind of factory converting the raw materials of technology into services consumed by the business. The fact is that IT was an inefficient factory that required a lot of manual effort. The era of custom built IT is being replaced by utility models. Public cloud is one such utility model, but there are others emerging even as we speak. What remains of IT is leaving the infrastructure era and entering the application era. To repeat a catchy phrase from a Microsoft executive, “Cloud is a model not a place”.
The evolution of the electricity-generation industry is an often used as an analogy for what is happening in IT with public cloud. I myself have used this analogy on many, many occasions since reading Carr’s prophetic “Does IT Matter?”. Yet the consumption of electricity and of computing are not close cousins. People have a great many preferences around how they consume computing but the same is not true of electricity. Some people value the privacy of their data while others value performance or the ability to scale. Public cloud is well suited to the consumer preferences of the moment, but that is subject to change. For most of us, electricity is just electricity, but even it is not immune. Just look at the impact solar and other alternative energy.
We haven’t even talked about the Grim Reaper of Public Cloud. When the Reaper comes he will come in the form of a catastrophic outage of one or more massive public cloud providers. Whether this outage is created by a security compromise, human error, or a bug or other technological failure, the result will be drastic changes in consumer preferences. We will all collectively learn the meaning of “too big to fail”. When the Reaper finally exposes his face it will be the Federal Government. Congress, greatly annoyed by their depravation of cat videos, will quickly move to regulate public clouds to oblivion. The party will be over when Amazon starts to look a lot more like AT&T.
There may just be life in that old data center yet.