What Bilbo Baggins Teaches Us About Cloud Computing

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Cloud computing and the hobbit, Bilbo Baggins? What might they have in common? On the surface, you'd have to say nothing. But I've been thinking about The Hobbit lately, with the much-anticipated Peter Jackson epic set to debut in theaters soon. Although I'm sure J. R. R. Tolkien had no notion of cloud computing, or computers for that matter, Bilbo's story can still be read as an allegory for the journey that many IT pros take when they move to the cloud -- with many of the same lessons to be learned.

At the start, Bilbo is quite content in his little hobbit hole, Bag End, in the Shire. Think of that as IT pros in the traditional mode of on-premises deployments. Had he been left to himself, that's exactly where Bilbo would have stayed. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view), Gandalf chose Bilbo to accompany the dwarves on their quest across the wilds to the Lonely Mountain. We can say Gandalf is like a CIO or CEO or some conglomeration of super powerful execs. And the dwarves? We'll call them end users that Bilbo has to successfully move along to the cloud.

cloud computing, Bilbo Baggins

As long as Gandalf travels with the party, Bilbo does little of note. It's when Bilbo finds himself alone that his abilities begin to shine through and he proves Gandalf's choice of him -- first when separated from his companions in the goblin caves when he encounters Gollum, and more importantly when he has to rescue the trapped dwarves from the spiders in Mirkwood. When he doesn't have the wizard to fall back on, Bilbo proves quite resourceful and courageous.

So what do we learn about cloud computing from this story? A number of lessons can be read that apply both to the IT pro and to the business as a whole:

  • Give the hobbit his head -- It might be the CEO's decision that the business needs to move to the cloud, but determining what systems or applications can benefit from cloud computing should be a shared decision with your IT pros. Don't hamstring your IT department by dictating how and where that happens. Let them show their ingenuity and initiative -- you know, all that valuable knowledge that you've hired them for.
  • Make the goal tangible and valuable -- It's all well and good to talk about "cost savings" and "shared resources," but those terms are mostly meaningless to your common end user. However, if you can explain the change to cloud computing in terms of what those end users gain -- the treasure at the end of the quest -- and do so in concrete, meaningful terms, you can make those users willing partners, even leaders, in the journey to the cloud.
  • It's a long journey; plan carefully -- Don't expect to move to the cloud over night or over a weekend. It might not be an epic quest, but it does require careful planning to choose the right route for your business. You might find unexpected allies or partners along the road: Bilbo and the dwarves were aided by the eagles and Beorn; for your business, maybe it's Microsoft, VMware, or Rackspace. But there are likely to be unexpected pitfalls as well -- beware the trolls, goblins, and spiders, which you can do with careful research and scouting ahead.
  • If you reach your goal, there might still be battles to fight -- The dwarves were so intent on reaching the Lonely Mountain that they never thought how they would dispatch the dragon when they got there, which if you think about it, is a pretty big hole in their plan. Make sure you know how you'll manage your cloud environment, what security measures you need and how they'll be met, and what consequences might arise from your move. Keep your end users' experience in mind, as they're the ones who will be fighting the battle on the front lines when the clouds break.
  • Remember: It's there and back again -- This is the part that Bilbo forgot: How was he going to get his share of the treasure all the way back to Bag End? When your business decides to move to cloud computing, you should still plan for what happens if it doesn't work out. Can you move back on premises? Can you move to a different hosting model? How long can you live with problems in the cloud before you need to take action? How do you move your data and what will the migration cost? Plan your exit strategy, even though you hope never to use it.

Yes, that Bilbo turned out to be quite the clever fellow. I don't know if this advice will help anyone slay their own cloud computing dragons, but at least it might give you a few things to think about.

Follow B. K. Winstead on Twitter at @bkwins
Follow Windows IT Pro on Twitter at @windowsitpro

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B. K. Winstead

B. K. Winstead is a former editor for Windows IT Pro specializing in Exchange Server, messaging, mobility, unified communications, and cloud computing.

Jeff James

Jeff James is a former editor for Windows IT Pro.
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