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CIOs Must Beware Private Cloud Plan Hijackers

Employees with something to lose will try to thwart your private cloud plans. The boss needs to take charge.

Private cloud is inevitable, but that doesn't mean the road is going to be smooth. One of the major roadblocks is going to be your own staff, so we can expect the same tar-pitted demise of traditional server and storage infrastructures as we experienced with the decline of mainframe computing.

Why not get out ahead of the curve, rip off the Band-Aid, and start to realize the substantial benefits of private clouds? We should all be so lucky. Truth is, substantial change is hard and is met with resistance.

During a private cloud panel I participated in last year at Cloud Connect, one audience member said it well: "I find it difficult to believe that people will act against their own self interests." He meant that the same people who are fat, dumb, and happy with their current infrastructures will be loathe to invalidate their current skill sets and make it possible for their employers to operate with fewer infrastructure pros. Instead, they'll convince their CIOs that this cloud stuff is a bunch of garbage. "We already have virtualization. Why would we create automation that would require fewer employees ... like us?" And so all sorts of artificial barriers are thrown up: Private clouds are too complicated, too expensive, too risky.

Problem is, the "baffle them with BS" approach generally doesn't work with today's CIOs. And the stakes couldn't be higher for CIOs. As we discovered in our research for our upcoming InformationWeek Report on Cloud ROI, the hybrid (and thus private) cloud is key to optimizing your organization's IT spend.

I agree with what Yoram Heller, VP of corporate development at Morphlabs, said to me the other day about private clouds: "If you're the CIO, and you're ignoring it, you're going to lose your job." Even if you don't lose your job, if you don't start down this road now, you risk playing massive (expensive, risky) catch-up once your app vendors start to have an expectation that their customers' infrastructure is automated and can scale up and out.

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So what can you do to bring the staff along? There's no one thing, but as with any transformational initiative, it will require the personal attention of the CIO. Your infrastructure folks, unless they're truly visionary, will do one of three things: just go back to doing what they do (the "ignore" scenario); come back to you with all those reasons it's not going to work (the "barrier" scenario); or present you with the most expensive way of implementing a private cloud (the "buy big" scenario).

To achieve what FedEx, Zynga, Dreamworks, and other forward-thinking businesses are achieving through a balance of private and public cloud, IT staffers need active leadership in several areas.

>> Find a space for true believers. At a recent talk I attended, organizational change luminary Dan Heath cited a study that found that hotel guests are 26% more likely to re-use towels if, instead of getting the usual "save the earth" propaganda, guests are presented with a simple message: "Most guests at this hotel re-use their towels."

The point? Behavior is contagious. Heath went on to say: "If the norm is for you, publicize it. If the norm is against you, find a space for true believers."

In most IT organizations, where infrastructure folks have something to lose in the move to the cloud, you're going to have to find the true believers, people who are excited about the benefits and don't mind doing some work to get there. Give them room to explore, which means taking other tasks off their plates and/or providing resources.

Buy some expertise. Even true believers don't have all of the answers. Joe Emison, an expert I spoke with for our cloud ROI report, maintains that "anyone who has ever successfully administered a Linux box can stand up a private cloud." But I've seen some very smart people have at least some difficulty getting going.

Maybe that's because there are so many cloud options. Open source? Proprietary? Do you use CloudStack? OpenStack? Eucalyptus? Nimbula? Geez, do you even use a software solution, or do you seek comfort in the expensive but accountable arms of a hardware/software Vblock solution?

You can't possibly go cloud at enterprise scale without a management platform, so which one do you use? Rightscale? Cloudscaling? enStratus? See what I mean?

All of a sudden there are lots of permutations. Spending a few thousand bucks on some outside expertise turns into a bargain compared to hundreds of hours of internal staff R&D.

One thing is clear. The truly successful private cloud implementations are typically using commodity hardware, not highly expensive hardware or hypervisors. As Nishan Sathyanarayan, director of professional services for Nimbula, points out, if you're satisfied with Google, Amazon, and Facebook, then you're satisfied with large-scale infrastructure running open source on commodity equipment.

I am well aware that Cisco and friends have invested heavily in VCE and the Vblock platform. They're trading on their brand names, on the fact that they have earned deep loyalties in the infrastructure world. But cloud is not about name brand infrastructure. Don't listen to your staffers when they tell you that the expertise they need is centered on brand name hardware and hypervisor solutions. It may be one day, but it's not now.

Want the secret sauce recipe? Find folks who know the software side, and who know how to use commodity gear. Get your training and consulting from them, not from the name-brand hardware people who have a vested interest in recapturing your enterprise's infrastructure business.

>> Start small, avoid academic exercises. If you have some cloud-obsessed folks on staff who have spent the time to come up to speed on their own, fine. Implement a small private cloud yourself. But be prepared for staffers to spend more time researching and debugging.

The bottom line is that your IT organization needs to experience a private cloud platform in order to make decisions about operations and maintenance and plan for what the infrastructure--and its staffing--will look like in 24 or 36 months. Even if you need to bring in outside expertise, you can get started for less than $20K.

But make sure that it's not just an academic exercise. Even if your initial private cloud is limited in scope, put it into production. You're going to be living with something like it in the future, so you'd better get used to it now.

Jonathan Feldman is a contributing editor for InformationWeek and director of IT services for a rapidly growing city in North Carolina. Write to him at [email protected] or at @_jfeldman.

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