The most important technology in business today is cloud computing, and it has a problem.
Cloud Native-Cloud technology enables access to nearly unimaginable amounts of computation and powerful software tools at low cost. It’s at the center of an economic and technological boom that’s been called “The Second Machine Age,” with an impact similar to that of the Industrial Revolution. The World Economic Forum terms this “The Fourth Industrial Revolution,” as well.
The problem is thinking about and creating a common understanding around a change that big. Here the industry does itself no favors. For years, many people thought cloud technology was somehow part of the atmosphere itself. In reality, few things are so very physical: Big public cloud computing vendors like Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud each operate globe-spanning systems, with millions of computer servers connected by hundreds of thousands of miles of fiber-optic cable.
Most people now know the basics of cloud computing, but understanding it remains a problem. Take a current popular term, “cloud native.” Information technologists use it to describe strategies, people, teams, and companies that “get” the cloud, and they use it for maximum utility. Others use it to describe an approach to building, deploying, and managing things in a cloud computing environment. People differ.
Whether it’s referring to people or software, “cloud native” is shorthand for operating with the fullest power of the cloud. This includes having ready access to powerful computing. It means making, deploying, and managing software that can be quickly and efficiently reconfigured as situations change. It means being data-enabled to spot those changes, managing at scale, and being flexible enough to meet new needs without a major system overhaul.
Michael Chui, a partner at McKinsey Global Institute who studies IT, sees the cloud-native business environment in terms of a changed outcome. “The pace and speed changes,” he says. “You only pay for the things you want, which couples the return on investment more closely [to business needs], creating the opportunity to shift resources from running infrastructure to innovating for the business.”
In principle, “cloud native” might be a useful aid in helping companies think about innovating to maximum advantage. Too often though, it creates misunderstanding and exclusion. “Native” connotes a lasting difference from what was born elsewhere. In fact, plenty of older software code can work just fine inside cloud systems, particularly if it’s treated with technologies like software containers that enable flexibility and speedy reconfiguration. It also suggests that companies and people who were active before cloud computing came on the scene are somehow disadvantaged, or (to stay in the “native” idiom) will never quite master the new language.