Cloud Computing and the Hype Cycle

It is undeniable that cloud computing activities have come to the forefront in the IT industry to the point that Gartner declares “The levels of hype around cloud computing in the IT industry are deafening, with every vendor expounding its cloud strategy and variations, such as private cloud computing and hybrid approaches, compounding the hype.”  As such, Gartner has added cloud computing to this year’s Hype Cycle report and placed the technology right at the Peak of Inflated Expectations

Michael Sheehan in his GoGrid blog analyzed search trends in Google* Trends as indicators technologies’ mindshare in the industry.  Interest in cloud computing seems to appear out of nowhere in 2007, and interest in the subject keeps increasing as of the end of 2009.

Also worth noting the trend of virtualization, one of the foundational technologies for cloud computing.  Interest in virtualization increased through 2007 and reached a plateau in 2008.  Likewise, the trend in terms of news reference volume has remained constant in the past two years.

Blue line: Cloud computing

Red line: Grid computing

Orange line: Virtualization


Figure 1. Google Trends graph of search volume index and news reference volume for cloud and grid computing and virtualization.

Given this information, is cloud computing at its peak of hype, about to fall short of expectations and bound to fall into the trough of disillusionment?  According to Gartner, the goal of this exercise is to separate hype from reality and enable CIOs, CEOs and technology strategists to make accurate business decisions regarding the adoption of a particular technology.

Cloud computing does not stand for a “single malt” technology in the sense that mesh networks, speech recognition or wikis are.  Rather, cloud computing represents the confluence of multiple technologies, not in the least including grid computing, virtualization and service orientation.  Hence the Gartner Hype Cycle may not be an accurate model to be useful in predicting how the technology will evolve and will be adopted in the industry.

If the Gartner hype cycle theory is to apply to cloud computing, it cannot be in isolation.  In addition to the three enabler technologies mentioned above, we need to add the Internet for making possible the notion of federated computing.  From this perspective, what we may be witnessing is actually the Hype Cycle’s Slope of Enlightenment.  The search volume index for the Internet is shown in Figure 2.


Figure 2.  Google Trends Search Volume Index for the Internet.

The graph by itself does not look very interesting until we note that it is actually a picture of the Trough of Disillusionment: the time frame is actually too short to be meaningful.  We can claim that the Peak of Inflated Expectations actually occurred in the years 1994 through 2001, that is, the period of the infamous Internet boom.

Beginning at the end of 2007 we see the convergence of grid, virtualization and services into the cloud and the Internet infrastructure build-out beginning to pay off.  Grid computing moves from niche applications, starting with scientific computing, to technical and engineering computing, to computational finance into the mainstream enterprise computing.  Cloud computing would not be possible without the dark fiber laid out in the 90s.

The technology trigger period is actually much longer than what the Gartner graph suggests.  For a number of watershed technologies there is usually a two or three-decade incubation period before the technology explodes into the public consciousness.

This pattern took place with the radio industry from the 1901 Marconi experiments transmitting Morse code over radio to the first broadcasts in 1923.  With the automotive industry the incubation period spans from the invention of the first self-propelled vehicles in the late 19th century to 1914 with Henry Ford’s assembly line manufacturing and the formation of large scale supply chains.  For the Internet the incubation period took place during the government internet with the creation of ARPANET in 1969 and the trigger started with the commercialization of the internet marked with the official dissolution of ARPANET in 1990.

The trigger point for a technology is reached when a use case is discovered that makes the technology self-sustaining.  For the automobile it was the economies of scale that made the product affordable and Ford’s decision to reinvest profits to increase manufacturing efficiencies and lower prices to spur demand.  For the radio industry was the adoption of the broadcast model supported by commercial advertising.  Before that there was no industry to speak of.  Radio was used in small scale as an expensive medium for point-to-point communication.

Consistent with the breadth of the technologies involved, the commercial development of the internet developed along multiple directions during the speculative period in the 1990s.  The Peak of Inflated Expectations saw experimentation of business models, with the vast majority proving to be unsustainable. The speculative wave eventually went bust shortly after 2000.

Hence we’d like to claim that the recent interest in cloud computing, taken in the context of prior developments on grid computing, the service paradigm and virtualization and over the infrastructure provided by the Internet, is actually the slow climb into the Slope of Enlightenment.  Experimentation will continue, and some attempts will still fail.  However the general trend will be toward mainstreaming.  In fact, one of the success metrics predicted for the grid was that the technology becoming so common that no one would think about the grid anymore.  This pattern is already taking place with federated computing and federated storage.