Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Episode 3: The one where the the story of the cloud in Ireland was told

In the last four years, clouds in Ireland have represented three distinct things to the Irish people; our freakish & severe weather pattern changes wreaking havoc & causing hundreds of millions of euros in insurance claims, the dark clouds of national economic & personal depression from our financial issues, which have since placed Ireland at the centre of the world’s gaze, & the third kind being the latest buzzword in I.T., ‘Cloud Computing’, which coincidentally was heavily influenced by those aforementioned fiscal issues. Business costs being driven down were becoming part of the fight-for-survival, & traditional I.T services models or owning hardware was no longer part of the business plans for some companies, for who cloud was a solution turning traditional capital costs (CAPEX) into more economic, budgeted operational spend (OPEX).
The economic factors by their very existence and effect on Irish businesses has proven influential in the story of the cloud in Ireland, and its growth to Ireland becoming a ‘Global Cloud Computing Centre of Excellence’ according a report commissioned by Microsoft & the IDA (the Industrial Development Agency - who are responsible for the attraction and development of foreign investment in Ireland). [ link to report http://www.idaireland.com/news-media/publications/library-publications/external-publications/Cloud%20Computing.pdf ] A view that also conforms with the recently produced programme for Government  [ link to Programme for Government 2011  http://www.finegael.ie/upload/ProgrammeforGovernmentFinal.pdf ] from the recently elected National Unity Government of Fine Gael [link http://www.finegael.ie ] & the Irish Labour party [link: http://www.labour.ie ]
To firstly put some perspective on where the cloud in Ireland currently stands say against the USA, a recent comparison of cloud adoption rates between Ireland and the USA suggested that the IAAS aspect of cloud services (infrastructure as a service - for those not ‘down’ with the cool tech kids) is getting a far better adaptation rate in the USA than in Ireland, while SAAS (software as a service - think SalesForce, Apple iTunes’ Appstore etc.) had a better adoption rate in Ireland than IAAS. IAAS in Ireland still has some levels of mistrust, and as a result the cloud in Ireland to date has never really been driven by big business demands, or the major global players in the same way it has in the USA.
Cloud’s adoption in Ireland has traditionally been led by the development community, who when working on new web-based projects for small Irish start-ups had seen them place those projects live in the cloud, as shared hosting had proved itself unreliable despite being cheap, and that dedicated servers had become expensive, but again seen as unreliable in against ‘the cloud’.
The Irish development community, through its early use of Amazon’s web services, demanded cloud services in Ireland. The Irish hosting companies, who were either running out of space, available power and/or access to land to build data-centers (as the cost of land in Ireland went out of control - [ link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irish_property_bubble ] ), or even those who saw the potential for small scale virtual private servers, began slowly answering the call.
The charge with providing cloud services in Ireland has been blazed by Irish hosting companies, and has since spawned a new breed of cloud-centric service providers who provide ‘cloud-only’ services, supplying best-in-class cloud services without the noose of aged legacy infrastructures and services to support. One such company is Dublin based Digital Mines, the brain-child of Ed Byrne. Byrne  was part of the senior management team who early last year sold Hosting365, once one of the mainstays of the Irish shared hosting scene, to U.S disaster recovery company SunGard.
Digital Mines (www.DigitalMines.com), founded in 2010, recently shot into the news after closing €750,000 in first round funding via Enterprise Ireland and Delta Partners [ link:  http://blog.digitalmines.com/2011/03/digital-mines-receives-e750000-investment/ ], a venture capital fund. Considering the difficulty Irish businesses in general have continued to express over the last three years since the global economy imploded, i.e. obtaining loans, funding, credit etc., this kind of investment not only shows the strength of the cloud for economic hope in Ireland, but that experienced Irish cloud professionals are leading the way, getting their message heard and more importantly, playing their part in the cloud fulfilling its potential and economic role in the Irish and European markets.
Digital Mines, as an example, set out on the path of innovating beyond the traditional euro-spend-sink of buying hardware, building a data-center and the whole traditional go-crazy capital investment infrastructure spend by instead leveraging off existing world-class leading infrastructure from Amazon’s AWS [ link: http://aws.amazon.com ]. Amazon’s lead in this area is best put in perspective by the fact each day they add the equivalent compute power & services to power Amazon.com in the year 2000, which then was a USD$2.8 billion business. It is hard to imagine there is anyone else globally implementing that much infrastructure for cloud on a daily basis, let alone in the Irish market.
Digital Mines’ team with overfour years experience of building out cloud services, combined with a similarily experienced cloud sales team, no legacy infrastructure or service issues, or capital investments, Digital Mines set about creating a best-in-class, business friendly management console that plugs into AWS, which operates from multiple, diverse cloud centres in Ireland, which are the centrepiece for Amazon’s European cloud strategy. Again, a demonstration of Ireland’s importance role in the European cloud story to date and for the future.
The recent Microsoft and IDA study in Ireland, which was conducted by Goodbody Economic Consultants, while highlighting and acknowledging the importance of the cloud for Ireland, failed to highlight the opportunities and the levels of innovation it has already spawned. It also failed to demonstrate the issues the market in Ireland faces to meet the potential it envisions and aspires to, which are concerns that could apply to the potential for the European market growth for cloud.
Many cloud companies in Ireland (and across the world) have learned along the way that the awareness of cloud computing among both business and technical users is quite high, but that they come at it from different perspectives. Most interesting is that while awareness of the cloud is high, the actual understanding of how to apply it within a business is not. As a result, most businesses have not taken advantage of cloud services to date. Obviously this is a huge opportunity with awareness and appetite being very high, but expertise and understanding lacking.
For example, IAAS cloud providers in the Irish market have in recent years tended to take a very hands-off, business unfriendly ‘we-provide-infrastructure-only-with-service-level-agreements’ approach. This has proven to be one of those barriers to adoption of cloud in Ireland, and indeed an example of bad experiences some early cloud adopters faced, which has in fact turned some of them off the cloud, and back into traditional frameworks such as colocation (where a company buys server hardware and places them in a third party data-centre for power, security, cooling and connectivity), dedicated servers (IAAS), or shared hosting (a no-frills, no guarantees, inexpensive, generally insecure form of web hosting). Cloud, where it was supposed to be a solution, suddenly became a problem for some of these users.
One of the biggest complaints (and indeed criticisms) levelled at Irish cloud service providers by their customers, and even by those in the market space as potential adopters is the inability by those same providers to actually make the services easy to access, in the same way Apple makes its technology intuitive and accessible; they want it easy to use, with a user-friendly interface. They don’t care how it works, or why it works and rightfully so. They don’t need to. It should ‘just work’ right out of the well packaged and marketed box as promised. It’s not a uniquely Irish problem, but one that is in the forefront of the Irish cloud space.
Too often a start-up (usually the most common adopter in Ireland of cloud services) approaches a cloud service provider for a solution, only to be told the solution they want is a problem, as opposed to the provider having the solution to the prospect’s problems. Often the prospective cloud customer must rejig their needs to fit into the provider’s expensive monthly template.
I personally experienced from a particular hyper-visor supplier’s seminar last year a presentation about the benefits of this cloud platform solution to the service provider in maximising return and revenue, with very little if no emphasis on the benefits for the end user, who it ultimately must serve and be attractive to want to acquire services on. The perception presented was that ‘it was cloud and it will sell itself and to make hay while the sun shines’.
And yet in spite of these kind of issues, the cloud in Ireland has had a large number of successes, which those in the industry know exist, but won’t discuss, or are afraid to share. As a result, success stories in the cloud in Ireland to date have been given minimum coverage, despite the current hype.
If the cloud in Ireland is to grow in line with that hype, genuine use cases and indeed, more cloud-based businesses must be encouraged to come on stream, innovate and ultimately be a  leading part of the ‘smart economy’ Ireland’s politicians have waxed so lyrically about during countless media interview sound-bytes.
While the Goodbody Economic Consultants report rightly indicated the level of hype for cloud in Ireland, and the many job possibilities, it really failed to highlight what the opportunities were, or indeed explain the Cloud in any detail to help drive the point home and to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship, which has driven the cloud in Ireland to date.
Yes, it has garnered further awareness and excitement, as well as help ignite sparks of hope for jobs in the smart economy, but the example of Ireland’s fervor for ‘hype and excitement’ in property in the early part of this decade did it no favours. The fervor for this must have follow through. It must be purposeful, and not turn into the same level of emptiness that the property boom did in Ireland. Cloud in Ireland, or anywhere else must be about working smarter to gain better results as we face into an uncertain set of economic circumstances that our previous ideas about IT enabling business had alluded to.
The cloud and it’s strategy in Ireland now needs the Irish Government, arm in arm with its global commercial links and partners to work together to ensure that it nurtures this space adequately and appropriately. That it actively encourages the lead Ireland’s native cloud industry has taken thus far, and supports the jobs it has, can and will create in the future. It is with this impetus that it can contribute to the economic recovery in Ireland, and across Europe, with an excitement and energy that we all need; one that is found in abundance within those same cloud companies daily.

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