Nick Carr asked a simple question on his blog:  “Are we missing the point about cloud computing?”  He goes on to share an example from Derek Gottfrid at the New York Times, where Gottfrid solved a big problem converting 4 terabytes of Times TIFF files to PDFs using Amazon’s Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2).  100 virtual computers working for something under 24 hours at a cost of $240, and out comes 11 million PDFs. I am speculating here, but I imagine Gottfrid put the $240 on his credit card.  The mission according to Gottfrid:  “The New York Times has decided to make all the public domain articles from 1851-1922 available free of charge.”  Very cool.  Read Gottfrid’s account here.

Point is, utility computing (the preferred, more descriptive label than cloud computing in this case) solved a juicy new problem, not some warmed over set of requirements well-served by Times’ current systems.

When you read Clayton Christensen’s Innovator’s Solution, you’ll find fascinating models which describe the utility of a product and they may help us select the right problems to solve with cloud computing.  Christensen expertly develops the hypothesis that any new product introduced that fits on the current trajectory – the continuum of functionality vs. utility – is subsumed by the incumbent suppliers that inhabit the curve.  Christensen goes on to assert that innovators that enter a market at some point on the curve or an expected point on its trajectory, will get crushed by the incumbents whose products already inhabit the curve.  His lessons?  Incremental and expected improvements revert to the benefit of the incumbents.  And if you want a distinctive, defensible position in a market, find an off-trajectory position that the incumbents cannot or will not attempt to serve.

Christensen’s model is extensible beyond a simple product.  If we consider “product” to be a “solution” consisting of a set of processes, people and technology, the model still holds.  Introduce a problem / potential solution into an organization that falls near the [improving] trajectory of existing processes, people and technologies within the organization, and the existing organization will handle it as it always does.  That’s inertia, and it resists disruption (Christensen’s term), the derivative of true innovation.

So what does this have to do with cloud computing?

Returning to our lessons above, cloud or utility computing applied to solutions we may reasonably have achieved with incumbent processes, people or technologies will likely not be innovative, disruptive or frankly very interesting.  They may indeed be cheaper, and the wheels of the competitive markets will turn over the next years to find some new equilibrium in a cost-driven model.  This is the evolutionary progression in computing of the last 40 years as we traverse from service bureau computing to corporate mainframe to departmental mini to personal computer to client server, and so on.

The spackling over of all the computing stuff we have now with the hyped “Cloud Computing” label is happening with abandon.  Good news in that awareness and buzz is high; bad news in that the inevitable post-hype backlash is coming.

What to do?

Choose wisely in selecting your problems and how you frame them to achieve the breakthrough advantages of utility computing.

I have no first-hand knowledge of the NY Times, but I imagine their IT and finance processes and people are top shelf.  Go to any well-run company’s IT shop and ask for 100 servers, or go to the ‘New Applications’ window and try signing up a project like Gottfrid’s.  You’ve chosen to play on the trajectory of the IT Infrastructure group, the new applications group, or insert some label from the current org chart here group.  Good luck.

Instead, pick a problem not served by some application already in the data center, one considered impossible by the professionals or better yet one they cannot or will solve for you.  Even better, try a business model with the most tricked-out computing requirements without owning any servers.  Pull out your credit card and get going.