Is it Money, Flexibility, or… ??

Raise your hand if you think moving to platform as a service or infrastructure as a service is all about saving money. Raise it if you think moving to “the cloud” is all about increasing business agility and flexibility.

Put your hand down. You’re wrong.

Before going any further, let me clarify things a bit. You’ll notice I did not say software as a service above—for good reason. Move email to the cloud? Why not? Word processing? Sure, word processing is (relatively) a commodity service (though I’m always amazed at the number of people who say “word processor x stinks,” opting to learn complex command sets to “solve the problem,” without first consulting a user manual to see if they can customize “word processor x” to meet their needs).

What about supporting business-specific, or business-critical, applications? You know, the ones you’ve hired in-house developers to create and curate?

Will you save money by moving these applications to a platform as a service? There is, of course, some efficiency to be gained. It is cheaper for a large-scale manufacturer of potato chips to make a bag of chips than for you to cook them in your own home. They have access to specialized slicers, fryers, chemists, and even special potatoes (with more starch than the ones you can buy in a grocery store). Does this necessarily mean that buying potato chips in a bag is always cheaper? In other words, does the manufacturer pass all these savings on to you, the consumer? To ask the question is to know the answer.

And once you’ve turned making all your potato chips over to the professionals, getting rid of the equipment needed to make them, and letting the skill of making good potato chips atrophy, what is going to happen to the price? Yep, thought so.

This is not to say cost is not a factor. Rather, the cost of supporting customized applications on the cloud or local infrastructure needs to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis—either might be cheaper than the other, and the cost of both will change over time.
Does using the cloud afford you more business flexibility? Sometimes, yes. And sometimes, no. Again, the flexibility benefit normally comes from “business agnostic” kinds of flexibility. The kind of flexibility you need to run your business efficiently may, or may not, be the same as the majority of other business. Moving your business to another cloud provider is not always as simple as it initially seems.

The cost and flexibility benefit come from relatively customer-agnostic parts of the business models. To that extent, you rely more on them than they rely on you. Yes, you can vote with your feet if the mickey is taken, but if we’re honest, this kind of supply is almost as inelastic as your old IT service deal. There are few realistic options for supply at scale, and the act of reversing out of a big contract, selecting a new supplier, and making the operational switch can bleed any foreseeable benefits out of a change—something all parties in the procurement process know too well.

So… saving money is sometimes a real reason to outsource things. In some situations, flexibility or agility is going to be a factor. But… there is a third factor I have not mentioned yet—probably the most important, but almost never discussed. Risk aversion.

Let’s be honest. For the last twenty years we network engineers have specialized in building extremely complex systems and formulating the excuses required when things don’t go right. We’ve specialized in saying “yes” to every requirement (or even wish) because we think that by saying “yes” we will become indispensable. Rather than building platforms on which the business can operate, we’ve built artisanal, complex, pets that must be handled carefully lest they turn into beasts that devour time and money. You know, like the person who tries to replicate store-bought chips by purchasing expensive fryers and potatoes, and ends up just making a mess out of the kitchen?

If you want to fully understand your infrastructure, and the real risk of complexity, you need to ask about risk, money, and flexibility—all three. When designing a network, or modifying things to deploy a new service onto an existing network, you need to think about risk as well as cost and flexibility.

How do you manage risk? Sarah Clarke, in the article I quoted above, gives us a few places to start (which I’ve modified to fit the network engineering world). First, ask the question about risk. Don’t just ask “how much money is this going to cost or save,” ask “what risk is being averted or managed here?” You can’t ever think the problem through if you don’t ever ask the question. Second, ask about how you are going to assess the solution against risk, money, and flexibility. How will you know if moving in a particular direction worked? Third, build out clear demarcation points. This is both about the modules within the system as well as responsibilities.

Finally, have an escalation plan. Know what you are going to do when things go wrong, and when you are going to do it. Think about how you can back out of a situation entirely. What are the alternatives? What does it take to get there? You can’t really “unmake” decisions, but you can come to a point where you realize you need to make a different decision. Know what that point is, and at least have the information on hand to know what decision you should make when you get there.

But first, ask the question. Risk aversion drives many more decisions than you might think.