Hey Canada, it is time to embrace cloud!

DrStrangelove060PyxurzSeveral years ago I gave a short talk at the Canadian Cloud Council conference in beautiful Banff on how Canada can accelerate cloud adoption: how can borders & barriers be removed and what is your #1 recommendation for cloud for Canada?

I proposed that the cCc should make an educational film for Canadians entitled:

“Dr. StrangeCloud, or: how I learned to stop worrying and love the cloud”.

It has been almost 10 years since Amazon opened up a the tickle trunk for IT called Amazon Web Services (AWS – think lego for computer geeks) that started us down the journey of being able to right-size our infrastructure investment, enabling just-in-time (JIT) delivery of IT services. This is an incredibly exciting time. We are living the Cambrian explosion of IT. But while there is a very rich ecosystem in the US and even globally, Canada has been anemic. 

What’s in this movie? It is the story of how cloud computing is democratizing IT – with the emergence of a free market of on-demand services so we don’t have to wait in line for our loaf of bread or go hungry when we can’t afford a whole loaf (some enterprises charge take months to deliver and charge $2000/mo per virtual machine). The incumbent vendors and traditional IT empire builders are “sleeping with one eye open, gripping their pillow tight” (you know who you are) while shadow IT slowly transforms organizations from the inside out.

Cloud computing is a big change for IT folk:

  • Cloud computing features APIs everywhere, we are living in a multi-cloud world where services are programatically composed like lego blocks to create amazing solutions.
  • Cloud computing will be open (both as in freely available and as in based on open source technology such as CloudStack and OpenStack, Hadoop and Cassandra) but most IT is still based on proprietary platforms today.
  • Cloud computing is about service levels, not boxes with brand names.
  • Cloud computing treats servers like cattle, not pets.
  • Cloud computing is an operating model, not technology. In fact it leverages pre-existing commodity technology components.
  • Cloud computing is a change in the way we work (i.e. DevOps) and we need to adapt!

Borders and Barriers

So what’s getting in the way of Canada embracing cloud? The great author Phillip K Dick wrote much about how perception shapes reality. How do we lower barriers to cloud adoption? Jim Love challenged everyone at the conference: “Canada needs to get real”. Lets just say Canada needs to shift perception and to do that, we need education not vendor cloud washing. Barriers other than cloud washing include “IT castle builders”, data sovereignty confusion, lack of investment, incumbent vendors, and a culture that is slow to adopt IT innovation. Many of these issues were covered in our recent blog post.

The solution is Leadership

Canada needs to help cloud computing achieve escape velocity. I believe a role of government is to recognize the strategic importance of an industry, that they should build a strategy that will foster an ecosystem.

My number one concern right now is the telecom oligopoly. Data has gravity. The cost and performance of your connectivity affects the distance and curvature of data’s space-time. The cost of both mobile and terrestrial bandwidth is multiples of what it is south of the border. If the cost of getting to the service is higher than the service itself, we will greatly slow adoption of transformative services. You can’t use cloud backup services when you have a 1TB hard drive but have a 20GB bandwidth cap. Netflix automatically lowers resolution to Canadian customers, leading to a poorer quality experience, because of those same caps.

I think affordable internet and access to cloud services should be a universal right. The benefits accrue to everyone. It is perhaps strange to say this but our utility companies are holding back our adoption of utility services.

We would all benefit from Canadian businesses and government being more agile. We know that “cloud” can help us by pooling resources, improving time to market, lowering IT risk, improving collaboration etc… Getting more done, faster, from anywhere and reserving the right to effect change, whenever you need to adapt. That sounds like it is worth embracing.

Maple-grade computing

A couple of years ago, Marc Andreessen famously said that software was eating the world. Despite this alarmist tone, I think he was understanding things. The future belongs to software, to automation, to data, to sensing—and ultimately, to the clouds on which such things run.

We are in the midst of a transformation to parallel that of the industrial age. At the time that steam and coal choked London, there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth: machines would be our doom, leading to idle hands and idle minds. Instead, fifty years later, we got the weekend and the end of child labor.

To not embrace on-demand computing North of the Border makes us digital Luddites, and puts us on poor footing for the sweeping changes that are to come. Sure, a self-driving car makes for good press. But think it through: when that car drives itself, do we need taxis? Parking? Long-haul trucking? Driver liability insurance? Traffic updates on the radio?

Software does indeed eat the world. And it’s the real world, the world of Timbits and Hockey and Cottage Country, not some techno-utopian dream. It’s a tectonic shift, one we’re ill-prepared to tackle—but even less prepared to compete against.

It’s the platforms, stupid.

While Canada has shown plenty of innovation in cloud software, our infrastructure providers have been asleep at the NOC. Canada lacks meaningful cloud platforms. It also lacks risk capital. Peel back the covers of a Canadian success story like Shopify, Freshbooks, Hootsuite or Beyond the Rack and you’ll find Amazon Web Services, Rackspace, and others. According to Gartner, AWS accounts for 5 times as much capacity as its dozen closest competitors.

This is serious business. Clouds aren’t just about computing—they’re about data and sovereignty. Storage consumption doubles each year, faster than network performance can keep up, which leads to a pattern called data gravity: all else being equal, data begets data, and computing becomes centralized, sucking new applications inexorably inside its escape horizon.

Even without data gravity, there are good reasons for countries to own infrastructure. Legal and ethical concerns—not to mention the prying eyes of watchful foreign governments—mean Canada needs infrastructure at home if it is to be a player in tomorrow’s automated, data-driven world.

The flesh is willing but the spirit is weak

The 2013 BSA Global cloud computing scorecard ranked Canada only 9th in the world for cloud readiness despite our advantages: our huge land mass and small population gave us an edge in telecommunications; we have a cool climate, a stable economy, a transparent legal system, abundant water and therefore renewable electrical power. We’re also a producer of top engineering talent. We’re already out of the

Worse, that same report ranks us 24th in business adoption of ICT (information and communications technology); 47th in government adoption of advanced technology (despite a massive IT budget); 24th in average bandwidth per broadband user while being 37th in cost; and a shameful 92nd in cellular costs. Netflix defaults to a lower resolution for Canadian user due to our small data transfer caps, high costs of additional bandwidth and risks of traffic shaping.

As a G8 nation, we should be ashamed. Despite our enviable advantages, we’ve become a digital backwater.

In 2014 we expect most major US cloud providers to establish a Canadian presence to tap the unserved market, turning our fantastic raw materials into their finished products, and selling it back to us. Conservatism and protectionism only delays the inevitable.

To regain our footing, we need serious changes:

  • A comprehensive national strategy to accelerate our cloud platforms and cloud software, which recognizes data gravity and the soverignty it entails.
  • An Internet Bill of Rights for Canadian businesses and consumers in an era where connectivity is a fundamental human need.
  • A rethinking of the powers an obligations of our telecommunications oligopoly—recognizing that they were created by taxpayers, and enjoy common carrier protections only inasmuch as they provide unfettered, unbiased access.
  • Investment in world-class data centers and true cloud platforms atop which we can build great Canadian technology companies.
  • Encourage risk capital for investment in software and platforms for digital business, evening out tax credit programs with other forms of economic stimulus.
  • Enhance and exploit the common global perception that Canada is more data friendly than our Southern neighbour.

The Canadian Olympic team shrugged off its typical humility in Vancouver, deciding instead to own the podium. The strategy worked. We need a rallying cry in technology to match that of those athletes. Instead of being polite and cautious, we need to step up and own the cloud.

If software is going to eat the world, lets make it Canada’s software. If Canada doesn’t wake up our neighbour will eat our lunch. By attracting much of our top talent and acquiring the most promising startups, they have already stolen our lunch money.