How Should We Measure Clouds?

Too often, IT pros start at the bottom and work up. In the cloud, we need to look at the business model and set metrics from there.

Alistair Croll, Contributor

March 20, 2013

5 Min Read

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There isn't a simple answer to the above question.

First of all, cloud computing is hidden behind a fog of abstraction. Whereas IT organizations could once instrument every element of an application, today's applications are like Descartes' brain in a jar -- we're never quite sure if they're real or virtual.

Second, many cloud service providers' goals aren't aligned with those of their customers. Service providers want to maximize revenue and profit and want the freedom to do what they will with the underlying infrastructure. That's how they make the most of what they have and stay in business. Without that freedom, they lose economies of scale and skill. By contrast, customers want special treatment and instrumentation all the way down the stack.

Third, people don't really understand metrics well. We still use averages even though they hide important fluctuations in service quality that can warn of problems before they become disasters.

[ Cloud Connect returns to Silicon Valley, April 2-5, 2013. Use Priority Code MPIWK by March 30 to save an extra $200 off the advance price of Conference Passes. Register for Cloud Connect now. ]

But there's an even bigger problem here. For half a century, IT has been about protecting precious resources. The reason you put up with carrying a stack of punched cards to the basement of the computing building at 3 a.m. was because mainframe resources were scarce and the humans abundant.

No more. Each of us has three screens, one of which is seldom more than a meter from our bodies at any time. That means we're less concerned about the consumption of resources and more concerned about the completion of tasks. We shouldn't really care if the CPU is idle or maxed out, provided that users accomplish what they set out to do. Proponents of service-level agreements have long known this, but cloud monitoring, hiding behind the fog of virtualization, drives the point home.

Application performance management (APM) and real user monitoring (RUM) have long been considered "advanced" forms of measurement. They go beyond up/down metrics or numbers related to utilization, and instead look at the success of the application from the user's point of view. (Disclosure: I founded Coradiant years ago, but I don't have any interest in the APM sector today.) APM and RUM have often languished somewhere between Web analytics (which show you what users did) and synthetic monitoring (which shows you whether the site is working). Today, however, the real question is: Could they do it, and well?

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There's much evidence that slow applications undermine productivity, cost money and cut into revenues. Slow clouds need fixing. To do this, we need to go beyond APM and start with the business problem.

Too often, IT professionals start at the bottom and work up. "Server 10 is down, which means the support site isn't working, which means the phone queue is too long, which impacts our customer satisfaction rating." They begin with the means and work back to the end.

Instead, we need to step back and look at the business model. From there, we can derive the relevant metrics and what's considered an acceptable threshold. Then we can measure against those thresholds and report on violations.

That's a much more palpable approach to measurement for executives. Starting at the model and working down suggests we say: "7% of visits need to result in an enrollment for us to meet our monthly target." From there, we can measure the steps of an enrollment and performance against the past or response targets.

When we owned the infrastructure, this kind of approach was considered progressive. But the fog of cloud monitoring means it's often the only way we can measure. It lets us size cloud consumption, which in turn lets us define budgets -- since with the right architecture, you can have any performance you can pay for. And it leads to good metrics, since it's focused on rates and exceptions rather than averages.

We'll be talking about how to measure cloud-based applications at the Cloud Connect event, April 2 to 5 in Santa Clara, Calif. In fact, we have a whole track of content dedicated to it, including sessions on WANs, application delivery networks, load-balancing and choosing the right metrics.

Clouds are the IT of abundance, and they fundamentally change how we measure applications. Let's figure out how.

Cloud Connect returns to Silicon Valley, April 2-5, 2013, for four days of lectures, panels, tutorials and roundtable discussions on a comprehensive selection of cloud topics taught by leading industry experts. Join us in Silicon Valley to see new products, keep up-to-date on industry trends and create and strengthen professional relationships. Use Priority Code MPIWK by March 30 to save an extra $200 off the advance price of Conference Passes. Register for Cloud Connect now.

About the Author(s)

Alistair Croll


Alistair Croll is an entrepreneur, author, and event organizer focused on emerging technologies and how they'll affect society.

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