Monday, April 13, 2009

The Case for a Cloud Computing Trade Association

In a recent report published by Gartner, the market research firm outlined the tremendous opportunity for global cloud services projecting revenues to increase 21 percent this year alone. According to Gartner cloud-based offerings made $46.4 billion in 2008, a number that is projected to increase to $56.3 billion in 2009 and $150.1 billion by 2013. With this phenomenal growth and revenue expected in the cloud computing sector, a few in the cloud industry have begun to ask whether it is time to form a cloud computing industry trade association. As many of you know I have been pushing for the creation of such an organization for awhile. I thought I'd briefly layout some of the opportunities I see for the creation of a cloud computing trade association and how it might look.

To give some background, according to the Wikipedia, "a trade association, is an organization founded and funded by businesses that operate in a specific industry. An industry association participates in public relations activities such as advertising, education, political donations, lobbying and publishing, but its main focus is collaboration between companies, or standardization."

First of all I'm not advocating for the creation of an organization focused on a particular ideology such as software licensing models or source code development but instead focused on accelerating the adoption of cloud computing by encouraging broader industry collaboration. More simply a formalized "legal" trade association which brings together both small & large companies (startup or enterprise), while also bridging the greater cloud community by including customers & users who all share a stake in the adoption / advancement of cloud centric technologies.

I believe the association should focus on the commonalities we share -- accelerating the adoption of cloud computing through a consensus view of the general opportunities cloud based technology brings to customers. I'm not speaking about defining what cloud computing is so much as defining the problems it solves and opportunities it enables. The things we can actually agree on.

To accomplish this there are a number of joint advocacy and marketing programs which the association may engage in. These could both include web centric activities including industry forums, social networks and online collaboration tools as well "in person" activities such as local user groups, unconferences and trade shows. The association may also be in a position to assist in the creation reference architectures, use cases, and white papers that help illustrate "how" & "why".

Another opportunity is in the active marketing & advertising of "cloud computing" through a uniform and constant brand using multiple mediums both online and off. A similar success story is the Wi-Fi Alliance. This group of industry leaders came together in 1999 to form a global, non-profit organization with the goal of driving the adoption of a single worldwide-accepted standard for high-speed wireless local area networking. Unlike Wi-fi, cloud computing isn't a single technology or standard, it's a broad representation of many loosely coupled technologies, companies, standards and communities. Therefore we must rethink how a industry trade association works and is formed, I've been loosely referring to this as a Trade Association 2.0.

One of the concerns I've heard repeatedly over the last couple weeks is the potential barriers to entry for participation in this type of association. The last thing this association should be is an inclusive club for a few select technology vendors and insiders. It needs to be available to all and should foster an engagement with both the existing community while also providing a formal / legal umbrella that the larger companies will feel comfortable participating in. I am also cognizant that it takes money to make money, so there needs to be a middle ground with potentially some of the larger vendors subsidizing the involvement of the smaller players and independents members. Simply membership should not be cost prohibitive.

The question of standardization also seems to keep reoccurring and is probably one of the most debated of the topics when discussing the creation of a cloud trade association. It is my opinion that that last thing the world needs is yet another standards body. There are dozens of existing groups and organizations that would be ideal partners. I say lets work with them. I would guess a good portion of the members of such a trade association would also have memberships in existing standards bodies already. I agree that there is no need to reinvent the wheel or boil the ocean. I'd rather see this association partner with the standards world rather then compete with it.

When it comes to structure and governance I freely admit I am no expert. Generally from the conversations I've had it seems that the best approach is one of a "meritocracy": literally, government by merit. The best example of a meritocracy in action is at the Apache Foundation, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization incorporated to support & protect the various open source Apache projects.

According to the Apache Foundation website, "When the group felt that the person had "earned" the merit to be part of the development community, they granted direct access to the code repository, thus increasing the group and increasing the ability of the group to develop the program, and to maintain and develop it more effectively. What is interesting to note is that the process scaled very well without creating friction, because unlike in other situations where power is a scarce and conservative resource, in the Apache group newcomers were seen as volunteers that wanted to help, rather than people that wanted to steal a position."

The question of incorporation (bylaws, strategic plans, tax, etc) is also important to address. Although it is fairly easy to incorporate a non-profit, the difficultly is in actually running it. We also have day jobs. Luckily there are a number of organizations in place to help with the back office aspects of creating and operating a trade association. Some of these groups include the IEEE-ISTO, Open Group and even dedicated association management companies such as Association Headquarters who's only task is to help manage the day to day operations of a trade association. My suggestion is we simply outsource the mundane operation aspects to a capable partner.

Why now? The fact is we're no longer talking about a hypothetical industry with almost 50 billion in real revenue last year we as an industry have a huge opportunity to collaborate and capitalize on potentially one of the biggest technology shifts we've ever seen. Let's not waste it.

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