10 July 2013

Recently I was consulting a client on cloud strategy. When we were trying to explain to the client how the risk landscape with growing adoption of cloud computing (being the case that it affects them even if they don’t themselves use cloud services) … I had an idea.

An idea that I think gives some insight why enterprises and especially IT companies were slow on cloud uptake and why small and agile startups were quick to take up on it.

Before I get to the actual idea, I need to go through some background information first. If you’re super duper familiar with risk management in IT service procurement, feel free to skip ahead.

Bloody long introduction

So, you know what risk is? Wikipedia puts it this eloquently:

risk = probability × loss

That is if you have a 0.5% yearly probability event that costs you $1M, and another with 50% probability and a loss of $10,000 these are crudely equal with expected yearly losses of $5,000 for both. So you’ll take both the probability of a bad thing happening and the consequences of that thing happening together as a risk.

Caveat emptor: This is only one viewpoint on risk.

This view of risks comes with an attached, implicit viewpoint. It is viewed as my risk. For example, the risk to me of your house catching fire is neglible (being non-neglible only if you happen to live within 100 meters), because the loss to me of your house burning is zero → my risk is zero too.

In larger businesses and government agencies it is common to push enterprise’s risk (“my”) to the vendor (“your risk”) through contractual means. In areas of IT service procurement this means the service provider assumes liabilities on not meeting service level agreements / deviating from rules and regulations / other failures. In exchange to .. well, of course, higher fees.

So, the risk probability can be divided into two components: mine and yours.

The service provider may mitigate its risks by many means. It might employ quality process models and employ good quality hardware as well as cover residual risks with insurances, for example. (More cynically oriented might expect the vendor to not do so.)

Anyway this does provide two more aspects to consider when understanding the loss component. For this discussion I’ll split it into methods and means. Processes and hardware, if you like.

So we get to:

risk coverage = (me ⇆ you) × (methods ⇆ means)

Ignore the pseudo-scientific notation for a minute. What I mean here is:

  • (me ⇆ you)  

    You can push risk probability to someone else, or handle it yourself. Not surprisingly corporate and governmental organizations tend to push risks away from themselves. After all it is easier to say “We had a contract with ACME Corp. to cover all bases! They fucked up!” than to “It was our fault.”  

    You can always count on people in large entities to cover their asses without regard to global optimum - it’s not their money, after all.

  • Methods and means relate .. here’s an example.  

    One network security risk aspect is the management of firewalls. To have good security you need to have good processes to ensure that only the minimum set of required holes are used, knowledge to understand the security model, an audit trail of changes, and so on.

    Good processes don’t mean anything without some means to turn those processes into the desired action. In this example that would require an actual network firewall (hardware). You can wish and design and change manage all you want but without a firewall those policies would have zero effect (e.g. you’d have no network security, or alternatively no network, both of which would be bad for business).

Finally we are getting close to the cloud. So bear with me.

The “traditional” way to manage IT service risks was to let the service vendor handle the risk. The risk coverage model was a bit like below (with dashes on non-relevant things):

my risk coverage =   (me ⇆ ---) × (------- ⇆ -----)
your risk coverage = (-- ⇆ you) × (methods ⇆ means)

(Note: I’m not sure whether the word “coverage” is a good choice here. Can’t figure out anything better, though…)

When shit then did hit the fan it was you (the vendor) that had to handle bad publicity and the resulting loss of income (sanctions, paybacks etc.). There are some risks that cannot be transferred (opportunity costs etc.), but generally my losses would be small-ish.

(There is a bank in Finland which has an IT service vendor handle its computing needs. All the standard high quality goodies: hot standby fail-over data center with redundant connectivity between the two. The link was so redundant and reliable that when one of the redundant links actually did fail, it reliably caused the other link to fail at the same time. This kind of mind-blowing cluster-fuckup cost the service vendor, but cost the bank probably quite a lot too. Small-ISH is relative.)

With the introduction of cloud computing and its commodity computing model the the coverage handling of risks has changed:

my risk coverage   = (me ⇆ ---) × (methods ⇆ -----)
your risk coverage = (-- ⇆ you) × (------- ⇆ means)

Now a cloud computing provider’s job is to provide the technical services I have purchased at an agreed SLA. However the cloud vendor does not take the responsibility to ensure that I would use its services either correctly or effectively! In a cloud computing environment I must now handle processes that make effective use of the means provided by the cloud vendor.

Going back to the firewall example with Amazon Web Services:

  • AWS is liable if it fails to either a) provide the firewall services (security groups, VPC network ACLs) with agreed availability or b) they have other functional problems (like passing traffic not explciitly allowed).

  • AWS is not liable if I do “allow all from all” and someone hacks the system when I didn’t do the methods bit properly. I have to understand and implement the methods to use the means AWS provides to meet my own business goals.

Finally, a point

Out of this comes the synthesis of the great idea I referred earlier:

The introduction of cloud computing doesn’t substantially change IT service risks, but it does change the distribution of these risks between the client and the service provider.

What’s so bloody difficult in this for many enterprise and governmental clients is that for years they have oursourced all IT risk management processes and now they would have to learn to handle it themselves (or find someone else to do that — a market that didn’t exist when cloud computing came around).

Alternatively said:

Earlier, the negotiation of distribution of risk between clients and service providers was a business negotiation, an exchange of responsibilities and liabilities versus fees required to accept those responsibilities and liabilities.

Cloud computing in contrast is a commodity market where the service provider tries to minimize negotiations with the clients by providing a limited set of contract options for its clients.

So WTBF about startups?

Well think about it.

10 years ago

You’re a startup. You need IT service. You go to a IT provider. You are so bloody small, they give you a crap deal. You can’t negotiate — it’s either their way, or the highway. You call some other vendors, but in the end you’re really negotiating just different shades of blue. So you sign.

Then they blow up. You go out of business. (The contract? Yeah, good luck in trying. Even if you win, their standard contract you had to accept doesn’t give you back the business you lost. Remember, you’re a startup, you don’t have the capital to survive someone else’s fuck-up. Your house was next to my tinderbox.)

When cloud computing comes around

You’re a startup. You need IT service. You go to a cloud provider. They give you just one deal, the same deal everybody gets. You can’t negotiate — it’s either the cloud way, or get a TARDIS and go back 10 years (previous chapter).

(Then they blow up. Same situation as 10 years back, minus the lawyer.)

So …

Startups have never ever had the chance to negotiate risks on the same level as enterprises. Earlier they had to take the crap deal. (Alternatively they had to live in the shadows of the “real” IT economy, that is, hugging servers and trying to negotiate a reasonable deal with ISPs to get fat enough Internet pipe and worry the hair gray about their cheap hardware and colo deals.)

When cloud computing came around it offered no worse risk distribution than startups ever had to handle, yet it offered new capabilities that the earlier model lacked.

No wonder startups embraced the cloud. Even with an unknown future, the cloud was guaranteed to be no worse than what was available before.


This is just one viewpoint. Making an assumption that this would be the only reason for success and fast adoption of cloud computing in startups is both wrong and retrofitting the facts to a fabricated historical narrative. Don’t fall for that. Reality is much, much more complex.

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