The look of post-cloud IT

Vendor marketing on the cloud is terrible...

I recently surveyed the vendor, analyst and trade-show landscape seeking to get a snapshot of current thinking about cloud computing . I came away with two visceral conclusions. The first is that vendor marketing on this topic is terrible. One would be hard-pressed to find more gibberish per pixel than the typical vendor or analyst PowerPoint presentation on cloud computing. The second conclusion is that no one really knows anything about what will happen to IT after the cloud becomes a mainstream reality.

All right, maybe somebody knows something, but no one who is talking about it publicly is speaking intelligibly. And we need to start having this conversation. To kick things off, let me observe that in my 30-plus years in this industry, I have learned that every time we have a major IT phase change -- and cloud computing is looking like the latest of many -- those who adapt the quickest are the ones who can answer these questions:

1. Where are we?

2. Where do we want to go? (That is, what, strategically speaking, are our options?)

3. How do we get there? (That is, tactically, what are our options?)

4. How do we persuade the enterprise to make the trip?

The vendor presentations I regrettably had to endure tended to obsess on the current state of technology. Vendors pay lip service to the maxim "Nobody buys technology for technology's sake anymore," but these presentation materials unmasked an assumption that the reason to buy is purely technological.

As for the postcloud end state, it merited not one mention. That oversight rankles me, but I am unreservedly a futurist . In a way, though, we all are. Paleoanthropologists tell us that planning ahead is a defining characteristic of the human condition. Neurophysiologist William Calvin, author of A Brief History of the Mind , argues persuasively that modern human cognition, including the capacity to plan ahead, had its origins in our ability to target a moving animal with a thrown rock. And so I stand here, rock in hand, asking, Where is this moving animal we call cloud computing going, and do we really want to go there?

Again, it is all of my decades of experience in this industry that make me ask this. All too often, we have tended to characterize lack of action as a very bad thing. To be successful, one has had to be perceived as doing something; that's how a generation skilled in presenting an aura of perpetual motion -- I call it "faux busy-ness" -- came to prominence. And when you are faux busy all the time, your mind is apt to focus on how to remain faux busy, which precludes any real likelihood that you will stop and ask the all-important question, How does this end?

Forgetting to answer that question can often turn out badly. History-minded readers may recall that the armistice ending World War I took most Americans by surprise. In Selling the President, 1920 , John Morello notes that "little thought had been given as to what to do after the shooting and cheering stopped." Of course, most historians also believe that the way the war ended had a lot to do with the eventual outbreak of an even bigger conflict at the end of the 1930s. Our foresight hasn't really improved since then: The general consensus is that the postcombat phase of the Iraq war was underplanned.

Psychologists and cognitive scientists tell us that we humans like stories. We like beginnings, middles and ends. That suggests that we all should be eager to find out how the cloud computing story will end. Will there be one ending or many -- in other words, does my cloud look like your cloud? What do you foresee?

Thornton A. May is the author ofThe New Know: Innovation Powered by Analyticsand executive director of the IT Leadership Academy at Florida State College at Jacksonville. You can contact him at thorntonamay@aol.com .

Read more about management in Computerworld's Management Knowledge Center.

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Thornton A. May

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