Since IT began, over the course of years, computing services have run through massive phases of decentralization out to departments followed by consolidation back to the data center. In the early years of computing, from the 50s to the 60s, the only real distributed solution to mainframe or big iron data processing was sophisticated card sorters.
But back in the 70s the consolidation-decentralization wars were driven by the availability of mini-computers competing with mainframes for applications and users. During the 80s, the PC emerged to become the dominant decentralizer taking applications away from mainframes and big servers and in the 90s it was small, off-the-shelf linux servers and continuing use of high-powered PCs that took applications out from data center control.
In those days it seemed that most computing decentralization was driven by the ease of developing applications for these upstarts and the relative low-cost of the new platforms.
Server virtualization, the final solution
Since 2000, another force has come to solve the consolidation quandry – server virtualization. With server virtualization such as from VMware, Citrix and others, IT has once again driven massive consolidation outlying departmental computing services to bring them all, once again, under one roof, centralizing IT control. Virtualization provided an optimum answer to the one issue that decentralization could never seem to address – utilization efficiency. With most departmental servers being used at 5-10% utilization, virtualzation offered demonstrable cost savings when consolidated onto data center hardware.
Cloud computing/storage mutiny
But with the insurrection that is cloud computing and cloud storage once again, departments can easily acquire storage and computing resources on demand and utilization is no longer an issue because it’s a “pay only for what you use” solution. And they don’t even need to develop their own applications because SaaS providers can supply most of their application needs using cloud computing and cloud storage resources alone.
Virtualization was a great solution to the poor utilization of systems and storage resources. But with the pooling available with cloud computing and storage, utilization effectiveness occurs outside the bounds of the todays data center. As such, with cloud services utilization effectiveness in $/MIP or $/GB can be approximately equivalent to any highly virtualized data center infrastructure (perhaps even better). Thus, cloud services can provide these very same utilization enhancements at reduced costs out to any departmental user without the need for centralized data center services.
Other decentralization issues that cloud solves
Traditionally, the other problems with departmental computing services were lack of security and the unmanageability distributed service both of which held back some decentralization efforts but these are partially being addressed with cloud infrastructure today. Insecurity continues to plague cloud computing but some cloud storage gateways (see Cirtas Surfaces and other cloud storage gateway posts) are beginning to use encryption and other cryptographic techniques to address these issues. How this is solved for cloud computing is another question (see Securing the cloud – Part B).
Cloud computing and storage can be just as diffuse and difficult to manage as a proliferation of PCs or small departmental linux servers. However, such unmanage-ability is a very different issue, one intrinsic to decentralization and much harder to address. Although it’s fairly easy to get a bill for any cloud services, it’s unclear whether IT will be able to see all of them to manage it. Also, nothing seems able to stop some department from signing up for SalesForce.com or even to use Amazon EC2 to support an application they need. The only remedy, as far as I can see to this problem, is adherence to strict corporate policy and practice. So unmanageability remains an ongoing issue for decentralized computing for some time to come.
Nonetheless, it seems as if decentralization via the cloud is back, at least until the next wave of consolidation hits. My guess for the next driver of consolidation is to make application development much easier and quicker to accomplish for centralized data center infrastructure – application frameworks anyone?