You’ll Never Really Innovate On Someone Else’s Cloud

Innovation is for other companies, apparently, not yours—at least if you’re among the ranks of the hordes who are busy piling into “public cloud” services offered by Amazon Web Services. At least, that’s the striking and somewhat counterintuitive argument raised by Chris Schlaeger, who directs kernel and operating systems at AWS.

Speaking at LinuxCon Europe this week, Schlaeger told the open source faithful that “the ability to modify every parameter of your system is key” to your ability to be really innovative. Of course, that suggests that the minute we build on someone else’s cloud—like, say, Amazon’s—we lose our ability to innovate, at least at the infrastructure level of the software stack.

See also: Cloud, Schmoud—To Really Succeed, Web Companies Need Their Own Data Centers

That may be an acceptable trade-off for many—possibly even most—companies who need to embrace the cloud to cut costs, simplify the management of their IT infrastructure or extend their online reach. But it’s also worth noting that the most innovative companies today shun the public cloud, and instead run on their own data centers and heavily modify the open-source software they use.

Do As I Say …

Amazon Web Services doesn’t want you to have to bother with managing your own database, operating system, hardware or, really, much of anything. Over the past few years, AWS has built an impressive suite of services, initially focused on core infrastructure services like compute (EC2) but now much more. 

As Amazon CTO Werner Vogels puts it, Amazon is in “the business of pain management for enterprises.” This will necessarily involve more than managing operating systems and hardware for customers.

See also: Why The Cloud You Want Is Not The Cloud You Deserve

The upside to Amazon’s errand of angels is that it “allows customers to focus their attention on their business rather than become IT experts,” Schlaeger told LinuxCon attendees. The downside, however, is that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos “quickly realized that in order to be successful in the online business, he needed a sophisticated IT infrastructure,” one that could be tuned and controlled.

Not only did Amazon need this, Schlaeger suggests, but so do you: “In order to innovate, the ability to modify every parameter of your system is key and Linux and open source is a good basis for that.” 

That ability is precisely what customers give up when turning over their infrastructure to Amazon or any other cloud provider.

The Cloud’s Cognitive Dissonance

Of course the cloud doesn’t kill innovation. It just reroutes it. 

Netflix, for example, relies on AWS to host its infrastructure so that it can focus on devising new ways for customers to discover shows they’ll love, including the ones that Netflix produces itself. Former Netflix cloud chief Adrian Cockcroft insists that “speed wins in the market,” and that speed is driven by squeezing inefficiencies out of the development process.

See also: Netflix Is Positioned To Lead The Next Wave Of Cloud Adoption

By building on Amazon’s public cloud infrastructure, Netflix was able to strip out hardware and software provisioning, among other things. Netflix, however, may be the exception. 

Every significant Web company builds (or, at worst, leases) its own data centers. What’s running in those data centers? Heavily modified open-source software. And why? Because these companies understand that infrastructure can be a competitive differentiator; that innovation is increasingly a blend of hardware and software, perfectly tuned for maximum efficiency.

This is why many startups opt to build on AWS in the beginning to offload the infrastructure burden, then start designing and building their own data centers once they’ve become successful.

You’re Not Google

Of course, most companies are not Google or Twitter, and likely never will be. Either they’re an old-school enterprise trying to figure out the web, or they’re a new startup born on the web that will never come to dominate it. For these companies, representing 99% of the world’s enterprises, AWS or another public cloud will do just fine. 

After all, they’ve never modified open-source software, and almost certainly never will. Too risky. Too little reward.

See also: In Big Companies, The Public Cloud Is Leaving The Private Cloud In The Dust

Instead, as Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst told Network World, companies and other big organizations need to figure out ways to make their developers much more productive. Developers, after all, help enterprises to grow the top and bottom line, whereas “infrastructure is 100% cost-driven.”

Which brings us back to cloud. 

Schlaeger, it turns out, was spot on when he talked about the value AWS and the public cloud brings to big companies. It really does “allow … customers to focus their attention on their business rather than become IT experts.” It allows them to innovate at the business level, rather than at the IT/infrastructure level.

What it won’t do, however, is allow them to innovate the way AWS, Google, Facebook and others have done. For most companies, that’s just fine.

Lead image by George Thomas

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