Published on April 2nd, 2014 | by WMG Editor

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Cloud Computing: A Search for Simplicity

In developing cutting-edge research and thinking, the Business Innovation Group works with like-minded individuals and organisations in academia, industry and the public sector. The BIG Blog invites some of them to share their work and thoughts with us.

Here, guest blogger Will Venters of the London School of Economics looks at what managers should understand about simplicity when procuring cloud computing services

One of the primary motivations for adopting computing as a service is the desire for simplicity.

This argument is made in my recent co-authored book on cloud computing, which also includes the term “Simplicity as a Service” to describe the disentanglement of complexity offered by new pay-as-you-go computing services associated with cloud computing.

Indeed, one of the primary reasons why many are moving to the cloud is to simplify. Yet while the term ‘simplicity’ is widely used in relation to cloud computing, we have very little understanding of what it actually means.

Getting a better grasp of ‘simplicity’ may help us better understand why we procure this type of service, and here are three ways to do so:

1. Modularic Simplicity

To become simpler, a device must perhaps have fewer components. Or perhaps simplicity lies in the interrelation between components – the interfaces.

If we consider simplicity in these terms we can consider the modularity of objects – understanding how a service is composed of different services, and examining their underlying structures, as described by Baldwin and Clark. This is important for cloud computing where various technical services are often interconnected to provide a service – e.g. NetFlix integrates various Amazon cloud services with my iPad App as well as with movie-content.

The complexity of the constellation of modules can perhaps be better understood by decoupling the services’ modularity. It would also help to understand structures such as ‘hierarchies’ which are used to keep things ‘simple’. In this way, simplicity is calculated roughly based on counting components and their interfaces.

2. Aesthetic Simplicity

One problem with modularic simplicity however, is that the simplest modular-objects can vary considerably in their ‘simplicity’.

Take two objects made of clay – a brick and a pottery vase. If both weigh the same, they likely possess the same number of atoms. Yet most would agree that the brick is simpler. The vase’s atoms are in a structure that introduces intricacy and difference despite the material itself being identical to the brick’s.

Simplicity then is not inherent in the material, and it would be somewhat problematic to calculate simplicity by just counting the components and their relationship. What then makes the vase more complex?

Perhaps we evaluate simplicity through our interpretation – an aesthetic concept of simplicity. Take Apple computing for instance. From its first sales brochure’s proclamation that “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”, Apple has championed the idea that computing should feel ‘simple’ for humans. For Apple, simplicity is about removing the unessential – and reasserting the whole (the form of the final product) over the parts (the components that make up that whole) – but wholly centred on the human user.

Thus, cloud computing can be considered ‘simple’ in relation to how it is doing something for humans, and can only be evaluated through its use. For example, an iPhone is only simple when it’s being used by someone, and not when it’s taken apart and examined from within where its myriad complexity becomes evident.

3. Systemic Simplicity

Modularic simplicity places the ‘thing’ at the centre of simplicity. In contrast, aesthetic simplicity places humans at the heart of defining what is simple.

Given this, perhaps we can define simplicity in terms of the interrelationship between things and people – in terms of the complex social and technical arrangements of life through which we get things done, such as, for example, organisations.

In many ways then, simplicity might be defined by its absence – the lack of simplicity in modern organisations and their technical arrangements. Not surprising then, that managers often seek to organise things to be “simpler”. Yet most organisations are never simple, and it may be challenging to make them so.

For Miller, simplicity is an overwhelming preoccupation with a single goal, strategic activity, department or world-view – and making things simple by simplifying the organisation is therefore often problematic. This suggests that understanding what can and cannot be simplified would require a rich appreciation of the organisation’s complexity.

Indeed, the origins of cybernetics and complexity theory highlight that management must meet the complexity of a situation with a similar level of complexity in their response to that situation. This demands that a manager’s response to organisational complexity cannot just be a simplification of their actions if they cannot similarly understand or simplify the environment within which the organisation resides.

Often however, managers seek to simplify without this understanding. And in trying to make things simple, they often rely on relatively simple models of the organisation to aid their decision-making, whether it is the organisation chart, process diagram, or UML model.

As Beer reminded us, managers become bewitched by the paper representations of their organisations as a “surrogate world we manage”. They lose contact with what Pickering calls “the messiness of their world” and assume simplicity in the world, rather than seek to simplify it.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t attempt to simplify our understanding of organisations into models and representations, but that we must carefully acknowledge these models as “simple”, and ensure that we remain attuned to their alignment with the complexity of what they represent.

So when we buy cloud computing services which aim to change our organisation in some way, we must be careful that we are not selecting the computing model based on a simplistic understanding of what the organisation is trying to achieve.

Lessons on Simplicity for Managers

  • Simplicity isn’t always inherent in devices or technology. Rather, it relates to their interpretation and representation, and we should seek to model simplicity in ways which reflect this.
  • Selecting too simple a service is problematic. Simplifying computing systems must be met with an understanding of the level of complexity of the task they are for.
  • Simplicity does not mean less complexity. Rather, it can relate to the use of the service at the interface being observed. In procuring a service, we should be attuned to the lack of simplicity at different levels.
Further reading:

Willcocks, L. P., Venters W. and Whitley E.A. (2014) Moving to the Cloud Corporation: How to face the challenges and harness the potential of cloud computing. Palgrave Macmiillan

Venters, W. & Whitley, E. (2012). “A Critical Review of Cloud Computing: Researching Desires and Realities.” Journal of Information Technology 27(3): 179-197.

 

Will Venters is Assistant Professor of Information Systems at London School of Economics’ Department of Management. He has an international reputation for his work in distributed systems development, Grid and Cloud Computing and Knowledge Management.

This article is a condensed version of Will’s blogpost, which appears on his blog. It is protected by copyright © W.Venters, 2014. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author or the blog owner is strictly prohibited.

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