The vendor community – Microsoft included – has done a horrible job of explaining what “private cloud” is supposed to mean. So horrible, in fact, that the term has become yet another hated marketing buzzword. But in reality, “private cloud” means something important, innovative, and disruptive.
It means the end of our users hating IT.
Unfortunately, as you’ll see by the end of this article, “private cloud” will take a long, long time to be truly implemented, because most companies lack mature-enough management to do so.
What is “private cloud,” then?
When the term was first launched, most people responded with something like, “so this is just the datacenter I’ve had all along, with some virtualization, right?” And from a technical perspective, they’re almost right. A private cloud-ish datacenter really doesn’t look a lot different, technically, from what you’ve got today. A private cloud datacenter almost, if not fully, virtualized. You’d have the ability to quickly move loads from host to host to accommodate workload changes. Most of you probably have something close to that.
The private cloud also has a lot of automation built in. When you need to spin up a new virtual machine to be a web server, or SQL Server, or domain controller, or whatever, you really just click a button. The infrastructure deploys the VM, finds a place for it to live, provisions the operating system, and so on. Zero manual effort. Some of you may be close to that, but most of you are miles away. Literally anything beyond filling out a single form (what kind of server, what will it be named, and so on) and clicking a button it too much work. In fact, if your stupidest, most entry-level tech can’t do the job, then it isn’t automated enough.
You see, that automation is the key.
This is a Management Play
Once your dumbest technician can deploy new VMs, any user can technically do so. So the difference between “users deploy their own stuff” vs. “IT deploys it for them” becomes a matter of who’s authorized to do the task, not who’s capable of doing the task.
When you log into Azure and spin up a new VM instance, nobody at Azure checks to see if you’re authorized or not. They don’t open a help desk ticket and route it to someone for approval. Because they have your credit card on file, they know you’re approved to make the decision, and the VM spins up. Nobody else can do that with your account, unless you authorize them in advance. In other words, you, the CEO of your little world, get to designate who may make those decisions. The IT department – the folks working at Azure – don’t care.
That’s what private cloud means: moving the authorization-and-approval point from IT to the business. This is good for two reasons.
IT Shouldn’t Be a Gatekeeper anyway
When exactly did IT get signed up to be “gatekeeper” on stuff? Well, in the beginning, only we were capable of doing the job, and so it made sense to make us a sort of bottleneck to make sure resources weren’t being wasted, and that they were being set up properly. The company set rules, and we enforced them. The problem is, that turned us into the “Naysayers” a lot, which made us a speedbump or something to be circumnavigated. We spend a lot of our time policing the infrastructure, and it shouldn’t be our job.
The biggest problem with IT being the gatekeeper is that is allows the company to conveniently write us off as “overhead.” Because we’re enforcing the company’s business rules for technology, the company gets to be lazy about accounting for IT usage. The problem is that IT isn’t overhead. Everything we do should either directly support a revenue-generating business function, or itself generate revenue. But because we don’t make the revenue, and we spend all the money on blinky-light toys, we’re “overhead.”
That’s Why Private Cloud is a Management Play
In private cloud, IT doesn’t spend any money, and it doesn’t authorize anyone to do anything. Instead, the company authorizes people to make specific IT decisions on their own. Line workers might have zero authority; their boss might be able to order new laptops when needed. His boss might be able to spin up new web servers at need, and her boss might be able to order entire new infrastructure elements like an extranet for partner communications. They do all that (ideally, but this is a maturity step) through a self-service portal, which IT sets up to run automation in the background.
Look, you’re the VP of Marketing. You want a website, push this button. You’ll get a website, and it’ll be consistent with our standards. There’s a cost for it, and it comes out of your budget. If you overspend your budget, that’s someone else’s problem, not IT’s. IT will provide Finance with a list of charges each month, and everyone pays for their share of the infrastructure.
You see, when business leaders who already have a bottom-line responsibility make the IT decisions, we aren’t overhead anymore. Business leaders make more careful business decisions about IT expenditures, because every one directly impacts their own bottom line, instead of being buried in some shared “overhead” category that everyone just ignores.
“OMG, let the VP of Marketing spin up web sites on demand?!?!?!” Yeah, let him/her. If he/she is incompetent, it’ll be a lot more obvious when the costs are more obvious. This doesn’t magically make every company better managed, but it puts crucial evidence in place to help make that happen. IT has no place enforcing the business’ financial or management goals. It’s not our job, it’s not what we’re good at, and it doesn’t serve the business. We need to move those decision points where they belong, and if that means people are allowed to make stupid business decisions, so be it. At least you’ll be able to see who’s making the stupid business decisions, instead of merely having anecdotal evidence of the fact. You already have crappy managers; let’s give them some rope and a spotlight.
But Here’s the Problem
The difficulty is that this requires a lot more managerial maturity than most companies possess. On the IT management side, you need to know what your resources cost. Newer tools – System Center Ops Manager is gaining some of these capabilities, for example – make it easier to send usage-based cost reports to Finance. But you also have to know what your administrators cost, because their “overhead” has to get rolled into the price of the resources you offer to the company. Most companies can’t tell you what a given administrator actually costs them, without turning to HR and doing some investigation on salaries and benefits and overhead and whatnot. It’s easier to lump us in as overhead… but it isn’t beneficial.
Private cloud is not a technological thing. It’s a management thing. We have most of the technologies needed to implement it, but we don’t have the management.