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Friday Philosophy – The Singular Stupidity of the Sole Solution

I don’t like the ‘C’ word, it’s offensive to some people and gets used way too much. I mean “cloud” of course. Across all of I.T. it’s the current big trend that every PR department seems to feel the need to trump about and it’s what all Marketing people are trying to sell us. I’m not just talking Oracle here either, read any computing, technical or scientific magazine and there are the usual adds by big I.T. companies like IBM and they are all pushing clouds (and the best way to push a cloud is with hot air). And we’ve been here before so many times. It’s not so much the current technical trend that is the problem, it is the obsession with the one architecture as the solution to fit all requirements that is damaging.

No clouds here yet

No clouds here yet

When a company tries to insist that X is the answer to all technical and business issues and promotes it almost to the exclusion of anything else, it leads to a lot of customers being disappointed when it turns out that the new golden bullet is no such thing for their needs. Especially when the promotion of the solution translates to a huge push in sales of it, irrespective of fit. Technicians get a load of grief from the angry clients and have to work very hard to make the poor solution actually do what is needed or quietly change the solution for one that is suitable. The sales people are long gone of course, with their bonuses in the bank.

But often the customer confidence in the provider of the solution is also long gone.

Probably all of us technicians have seen it, some of us time after time and a few of us rant about it (occasionally quite a lot). But I must be missing something, as how can an organisation like Oracle or IBM not realise they are damaging their reputation? But they do it in a cyclical pattern every few years, so whatever they gain by mis-selling these solutions is somehow worth the abuse of the customer – as that is what it is. I suppose the answer could be that all large tech companies are so guilty of this that the customer end up feeling it’s a choice between a list of equally dodgy second hand car salesemen.

Looking at the Oracle sphere, when Exadata came along it was touted by Oracle Sales and PR as the best solution – for almost everything. Wrongly. Utterly and stupidly wrongly. Those of us who got involved in Exadata with the early versions, especially I think V2 and V3, saw it being implemented for OLTP-type systems where it was a very, very expensive way of buying a small amount of SSD. The great shame was that the technical solution of Exadata was fantastic for a sub-set of technical issues. All the clever stuff in the storage cell software and maximizing hardware usage for a small number of queries (small sometimes being as small as 1) was fantastic for some DW work with huge full-segment-scan queries – and of no use at all for the small, single-account-type queries that OLTP systems run. But Oracle just pushed and pushed and pushed Exadata. Sales staff got huge bonuses for selling them and the marketing teams seemed incapable of referring to the core RDBMS without at least a few mentions of Exadata
Like many Oracle performance types, I ran into this mess a couple of times. I remember one client in particular who had been told Exadata V2 would fix all their problems. I suspect based solely on the fact it was going to be a multi-TB data store. But they had an OLTP workload on the data set and any volume of work was slaying the hardware. At one point I suggested that moving a portion of the workload onto a dirt cheap server with a lot of spindles (where we could turn off archive redo – it was a somewhat unusual system) would sort them out. But my telling them a hardware solution 1/20th the cost would fix things was politically unacceptable.

Another example of the wonder solution is Agile. Agile is fantastic: rapid, focused development, that gets a solution to a constrained user requirement in timescales that can be months, weeks, even days. It is also one of the most abused terms in I.T. Implementing Agile is hard work, you need to have excellent designers, programmers that can adapt rapidly and a lot, and I mean a LOT, of control of the development and testing flow. It is also a methodology that blows up very quickly when you try to include fix-on-fail or production support workloads. It also goes horribly wrong when you have poor management, which makes the irony that it is often implemented when management is already failing even more tragic. I’ve seen 5 agile disasters for each success, and on every project there are the shiny-eyed Agile zealots who seem to think just implementing the methodology, no matter what the aims of the project or the culture they are in, is guaranteed success. It is not. For many IT departments, Agile is a bad idea. For some it is the best answer.

Coming back to “cloud”, I think I have something of a reputation for not liking it – which is not a true representation of my thoughts on it, but is partly my fault as I quickly tired of the over-sell and hype. I think some aspect of cloud solutions are great. The idea that service providers can use virtualisation and container technology to spin up a virtual server, a database, an application, an application sitting in a database on a server, all in an automated manner in minutes, is great. The fact that the service provider can do this using a restricted number of parts that they have tested integrate well means they have a way more limited support matrix and thus better reliability. With the Oracle cloud, they are using their engineered systems (which is just a fancy term really for a set of servers, switches, network & storage configured in a specific way with their software configure in a standard manner) so they can test thoroughly and not have the confusion of a type of network switch being used that is unusual or a flavor of linux that is not very common. I think these two items are what really make cloud systems interesting – fast, automated provisioning and a small support matrix. Being available over the internet is not such a great benefit in my book as that introduces reasons why it is not necessarily a great solution.

But right now Oracle (amongst others) is insisting that cloud is the golden solution to everything. If you want to talk at Oracle Open World 2016 I strongly suspect that not including the magic word in the title will seriously reduce your chances. I’ve got some friends who are now so sick of the term that they will deride cloud, just because it is cloud. I’ve done it myself. It’s a potentially great solution for some systems, ie running a known application that is not performance critical that is accessed in a web-type manner already. It is probably not a good solution for systems that are resource heavy, have regulations on where the data is stored (some clinical and financial data cannot go outside the source country no matter what), alter rapidly or are business critical.

I hope that everyone who uses cloud also insists that the recovery of their system from backups is proven beyond doubt on a regular basis. Your system is running on someone else’s hardware, probably managed by staff you have no say over and quite possibly with no actual visibility of what the DR is. No amount of promises or automated mails saying backs occurred is guarantee of recovery reliability. I’m willing to bet that within the next 12 months there is going to be some huge fiasco where a cloud services company loses data or system access in a way that seriously compromises a “top 500” company. After all, how often are we told by companies that security is their top priority? About as often as they mess it up and try to embark on a face-saving PR exercise. So that would be a couple a month.

I just wish Tech companies would learn to be a little less single solution focused. In my book, it makes them look like a bunch of excitable children. Give a child a hammer and everything needs a pounding.