Blind to the elephant in the cloud

Blind to the elephant in the cloud

Summary: Larry Ellison's anti-cloud rant at the Churchill Club last week, now in circulation as a 5-minute YouTube clip, reminds me of the old parable of the blind men and the elephant.


It always happens with new technology. People can't quite get their heads around it, so they latch on to some feature or another and assume they've understood the whole thing — a modern replay of the parable of the blind men and the elephant.

So we have Larry Ellison in fine form at the Churchill Club last week, the audience apparently rolling in the aisles in this edited video clip at his assertion that cloud is just "a computer attached to a network ... it's databases, and operating systems, and memory, and microprocessors, in the Internet."

We also heard last week that Oracle, the company Ellison leads, is planning to offer the option of subscription-based pricing for its midmarket JD Edwards line of business software, responding to customer demand for more SaaS options. (Whether the plan will see the light of day is another matter; the proposal is stalled while Oracle co-president and finance chief Safra Catz crunches the numbers).

Meanwhile, any number of software vendors are adopting Amazon EC2 or similar platforms as a new cloud-era take on what I used to call SoSaaS. As Gooddata founder Roman Stanek wrote yesterday, this is a backward step:

... a new way how to 'throw software over the wall' again. Many software companies have repackaged their software as Amazon Machine Image (AMI) and relabeled them as SaaS or Cloud Computing. It's so simple, it's so clever: Dear customer, here is the image of our database, server, analytical engine, ETL tool, integration bus, dashboard etc. All you need it is go to AWS, get an account and start those AMIs. Scaling, integration, upgrades is your worry again. Welcome back to the world of enterprise software ...

So what is SaaS and cloud computing? Is it computers on a network, in the Internet? Is it subscription pricing? Is it virtualized infrastructure? Is it multi-tenancy?

It is all of those things and yet so much more. What makes it unique and disruptive is the way that it combines them all and how they behave in that context. When people take one feature or another and examine it in the context of their own experience, they inevitably miss the point. What they fail to understand is that computing changes when it's immersed in the cloud. The most crucial attribute of any computing that aspires to the 'SaaS' or 'cloud' title is how well it is adapted to a connected environment.

Ellison is simultaneously right and wrong: he's right to say it's just "computers in the Internet" and yet oh so wrong to say this is nothing different from what we've always had.

PS: I started telling people this, by the way, a decade ago. About the same time that Ellison was warning (with admirable prescience), "The software business is on its way to becoming a service business ... If you don't understand this [as a software vendor], you're going to be in a lot of trouble." Whatever jokes he cracks about the way our industry markets itself, Larry Ellison knows very well which way the wind is blowing, and always has. But if no one else can see the elephant that threatens to trample all over Oracle's licensing and maintenance revenue stream, why should he of all people bother to draw attention to its existence?

Topics: Cloud, Browser, CXO, Data Centers, Emerging Tech, Software, IT Employment

Phil Wainewright

About Phil Wainewright

Since 1998, Phil Wainewright has been a thought leader in cloud computing as a blogger, analyst and consultant.

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  • I like the idea of cloud computing but...

    For me the real elephant in the room is security, user data rights, and long term usability.

    For me, once these issues have been resolved, I would love to come to the cloud.

    I agree there are tremendous benefits for doing business in the cloud but so far the issues above are real deterrents.
    • I hate the idea of cloud computing...

      I hate the idea of cloud computing because it'll just be a tool to
      [i]force[/i] consumers to buy upgrades they don't necessarily need. It
      also puts all my data and software in the hands of someone else.

      I experienced one of my worst fears with cloud computing just last
      week when Google Docs went down for an entire day. Our school
      relies on Google Docs, and when the service went down, everything
      was interrupted.

      I like the idea of having [i]my[/i] computer, with [i]my[/i] data on it.
      [i]I[/i] want to decide whether or not I want to use my software; when I
      want to use it; perhaps most of all, [i]I[/i] want to decide when I need
      to upgrade my software.

      Microsoft is finding it harder and harder to come up with compelling
      reasons for consumers to upgrade their Office applications. If you
      take the software out of your consumers hands and place it
      completely in Microsoft's, Microsoft gets to choose when you upgrade.

      You want to use Office Online? You get whatever version we give you,
      and you'll pay for it. Every single month.

      The only reason I've bought a new copy of Microsoft Office was
      because Word 5 doesn't run on an Intel Mac running OS X.
  • Private Clouds

    I think on premise companies merely have to offer their customers the option of being able to pay for their Internet connected products and supporting services, in package deals, under subscription plans. When on premise companies do this, then Bam! They create private clouds! Private clouds are much more preferred by enterprises to public cloulds, because clients can literally stick their heads into their own clouds and see what's happening - instead of trusting in other people's data centers thousands of miles away, sprawled all over the globe.
    P. Douglas
  • RE: Blind to the elephant in the cloud

    The real elephants in the cloud:


    Yep, everybody jump on the cloud bandwagon now, and expose yourself to the risk that one cut accross a fiberoptic bundle shuts you down. Or one security breach at a vendor exposes not just your data, but 100's of businesses data. Or what would have been a localized natural disaster results in a global outage.
    • Look on the bright side

      when your business doesn't play to the hype, you'll be in a position to
      loot the corpses of the victims after the catastrophe.
  • RE: Blind to the elephant in the cloud

    Well said Phil, again.
  • Man, this article is dripping with meaningless gibberish

    cloud computing is marketspeak for underpowered
    applications delivered over limited bandwidth.

    In the old days it was called dumb terminals. Then it was
    called thin client. Now it's called cloud computing.

    It's the same horse in a different coat.
  • And here is another ringing endorsement for cloud computing...NOT.
  • RE: Blind to the elephant in the cloud

    You're right Phil, the focus on one element is an excellent rhetorical tool for comedy, but does ultimately limit our understanding. (This explains the death of Mort Sahl's comedy by the way, but that's another story.)

    At the same time, I thought Larry said some worthwile things. The cloud term is way overused and has now become almost comedy itself. We could with less of this, as I think we all agree.

    You are also correct that the whole of SaaS is still one of the best ideas ever, and when taken as a whole it not only creates better tech value but enables an advanced business method and model.
  • RE: Blind to the elephant in the cloud

    ...aaaww Phil - you and I both know Larry Ellison is Silicon Valley's comedy ringmaster but I think he was really having a pop at the fashion culture. Something with which I agree - it's out of control. The Chanel comparison "Last year fuchsia, this year puce" was laser like correct. Hence I said 'K' for whatever it becomes next year. (SOC-K)

    JDEC in the cloud? Hmmm...that will be interesting given that general dev there is limping along to the point of being at a snail's pace. Allegedly.
  • What???s the bigger S in SaaS?

    Great post, Phil. As a CEO of a SaaS email archiving company (LiveOffice) who used to run a product group in the same category at an on-premise company (Symantec), I love reading your posts because they are pulling out and articulating some of the nuances I've seen in my own career transition.

    In particular, one thing I think about a lot is the term itself - Software as a Service. As a CEO, what do you wake up thinking about? The Software? Or the Service? While that may seem over-simplified, for me that captures the nuance of this seismic shift in technology.

    I personally wake up every day now (and sometimes in the middle of the night) thinking about Service (operations, support, reliability, SLAs, billing, etc.) because that is what we provide. In contrast, at my old job, Software (development) was what we did, so it was all I thought about. Don't get me wrong - Software is critical to what we and other SaaS companies provide, but the "Service" part is brand-new for most on-premise converts like myself.
  • Markets (and Customers) Rule

    The terms SaaS and Cloud Computing may sometimes be used as hype (without a real understanding of what they are), but the new distribution and service model they offer is compelling. Customers are voting that they want more of SaaS and Clouds and less of the old stuff. Especially in the middle of an economic mess like the one we're in, any company (software or otherwise) that fails to listen to what their customers want should be working on its going out of business plan.
  • It's a tool in a toolkit.

    It's a tool in a toolkit.

    If it makes sense, use it.

    If it doesn't make sense, don't use it.

    I've seen some local businesses do fine with a
    spreadsheet. They don't plan on expanding or going
    global, and they work fine in the niche they live in. For
    them, there's no real reason to go to the cloud.