Blurred lines when cloud customer becomes supplier

Abstract image showing digital clouds raining ones and zeros to symbolise cloud computing
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Cloud computing has had a disruptive effect upon information technology in many ways. There's been a revolution in the way we think of supply, consumption and the interplay of partners and customers, thanks to cloud. New delivery models have been formed, forged and (in many cases) also fragmented. Okay, so no big surprise, you knew that part.

What cloud computing has also done is blur the lines between vendors and customers. We normally think of cloud computing with relatively identifiable perimeters in terms of who hosts, who connects, who stores and who computes from infrastructure, to platform, to service or application. But the reality is different: inside the cloud vortex, the customer is the customer - and possibly the supplier as well.

Examples of this have been seen in the case of IBM and Netflix. As a supplier of datacentre storage and other compute power to Netflix, IBM’s vendor-supplier relationship was initially straightforward. However, when developers at Netflix produced the Chaos Monkey web application resiliency tool, IBM performance architects couldn’t resist making it a two-way relationship. Chaos Monkey itself is a tool designed to cause deliberate failure in Amazon Web Services (AWS) applications and IBM has used it as part of its project Icap developerWorks prototypes.

For the record, IBM is so huge that it obviously has lots of two-way and even ‘three-way love triangle’ relationships with partners and customers, but that’s not the point - the point is that this is a direct example of a supplier picking items from a customer’s toolset (in this case at no cost with the open sourced Chaos Monkey) and re-implementing them upon its own coalface, albeit an experimental one.

This new slightly incestuous trend goes further. OpenStack vendors are working with their own customers on software development as they fully engage in the ‘collaborative community model of contribution’ in the true sense of open source. So does this mean we need to think differently about the way cloud implementations are developed in some way? Does this changing relationship mean a different approach for CIOs?

“Cloud has been a catalyst for this kind of ‘crossover’ behaviour from the start. This is because, fundamentally, the total cloud proposition is really quite complex. The scale of the technology problems we are trying to circumvent with cloud are bigger than any one company, even an engineering giant like IBM,” says Nigel Beighton, international VP of technology at Rackspace.

“If you look at the difference between what makes a partner and what makes a supplier, a good partner will always have ‘skin in the game’ and have bought into a wider technical object target. For my money, I believe we need to encourage and propagate mutually united goals and I will always trust somebody who has a defined shared objective, even if that objective itself is exploratory and subject to change,” adds Beighton.

So where did this all start? “I am not sure that cloud started this blurring of the lines between vendor and customer, but I think that it has accelerated the blurring,” says Peter Matthews, research staff member, CA Labs at CA Technologies. CA Technologies conducted a survey recently that reviewed how the role of the CIO would change in a cloud world. One of the most interesting results was the realisation that many organisations are seeing an increase in “shadower rogue IT” in use.

“This is the ultimate expression of cloud potential. For example marketing departments using cloud storage or applications without reference to the procurement or IT departments and developing their own market analysis tools that they could then offer to other marketing departments,” adds CA’s Matthews.

The whole dynamic now shifts

Bryan House is VP of product marketing at commercial Drupal services company Acquia. He suggests that the ways and means by which firms work with customers is constantly evolving, specifically with regards to large-scale PaaS/cloud applications - and yes, this has implications for the ‘whole dynamic’ of the business-technology framework.

“Let me put this into context,” said House. “Historically, the datacentre team has taken ownership of managing every element of performance tuning. But now, by shifting to PaaS platforms, the customer willingly sacrifices some control to reduce complexity and lower costs, while taking advantage of the PaaS platform’s scope, power and elasticity. So the cloud introduces a new continuum in terms of ‘value vs. control’ and this drives a much closer partnership between vendor and customer. The days of transactional - here's a box with your server in it, you're on your own - are over."

The customer-partner relationship of old is being reshaped in no uncertain terms. Open source distributed database company Basho is working with Angry Birds developer Rovio. EMEA director at Basho Stuart McCaul explains that as a Basho customer, Rovio has invited a number of permanent Basho staff to work from Rovio's offices to take part in R&D on advanced technologies like conflict-free replicated data types (CRDTs).

Think cloud, think big data, think conflict-free replicated data types to be used by all the stakeholders responsible for their development. In addition to this, third parties too ie the CRDTs will be part of Basho’s Riak and, therefore, the technology will be available to everyone.

Gary Calcott, technical marketing manager at Progress Software asserts that these trends point to longer term changes that will come about in terms of the way CIOs need to approach cloud infrastructures. Calcott reminds us that customers have a choice of which platform they use, so perhaps for them, a little blurring of the lines when it comes to helping them make this decision can be a powerful thing.

“Application development platforms in the cloud will increasingly need to be IaaS agnostic otherwise they run the risk of limiting choice, potentially impacting on cost and also inhibiting reach (for ISVs in particular).

What we're seeing, as a direct result, is that for the customer at least, the blurring of lines between vendors and customers is actually a desirable outcome. After all, by remaining cloud agnostic, and preventing lock-in, IaaS platform suppliers will be stronger and more present in certain regions (and absent in others). Regional IaaS suppliers may also be better positioned to satisfy regulatory issues than others in certain markets."

Was the advent of the cloud IT delivery model concept always going to create such a fluid situation? It didn’t appear to be the case five or years ago, as much as the evidence presented here might suggest.

If this is cloud’s seven-year itch where it starts sleeping around with other vendors, then it may be no bad thing as long as appropriate levels of protection are employed. No one-night stands though please, let’s do this with love OK?