Insights and opinions on Information Technology from George Tomko, a veteran CIO turned renegade consultant.


Cloud Computing a Capital Idea?

cash 20s

By George M. Tomko

Many cloud computing boosters use the selling point that establishing large amounts of storage or computing requires no “up-front capital investment”.  Pleading before the gods of capital within corporations has been a bane for IT and business operations functions forever. All those appropriation request forms and cash flow analyses – not much fun when you want the servers installed and the software loaded.

What has always been interesting to me is that more thought, analysis, decision-making and accountability goes in to managing the capital investment portfolio than you often see in managing operating expenses. The irony here is that “op-ex” is very often many multiples larger than the “cap-ex” spend in any given fiscal period. If a $400 million company (in terms of revenue) has an operating profit of 20%, then the company managers spent $320 million with likely much less oversight than the $15 million that they might have spent on projects.

At the  end of the day, there is no free lunch. Just like leasing became the way to ensure “technology refresh” every 3 years, let’s make sure that cloud computing and all something-as-a-service offerings don’t wind up costing your company more or that the standards of decision-making are usurped by being able to fly more stuff under the financial controls radar.

The saying “you can pay me now or you can pay me later” became a “tag” line in old oil filter commercials where the idea was that you might pay more now for a premium filter but you would be avoiding the cost of replacing the entire engine later.  Of course, the assumption is that you would own the car long enough for this to pay off.  This was in the era when the majority of people traded-in and bought new cars in 3 or 4 year cycles.  Not long after, 3 year leases perpetuated the cycle.

The reality, then, was that most people wound up paying now and they got to do it over and over because later never came!

Another myth that is related is the 3,000 mile oil change. Again, another marketing bonanza because it got people to pay to replace their oil and filters twice as often as the auto manufacturers recommend in the owner manuals.

So back to op-ex and cap-ex and buying infrastructure/software/platforms as-a-service. If I take the op-ex view, it is almost always an incremental view as in year-over-year budgets and the dearth of zero-base reviews. If I take the cap-ex view, everything is an investment and is evaluated as cash-flows over a defined “economic life”. This takes rigor and commitment and the potential for more eyes to see and more ears to hear.

It is not a bad thing to have the option of paying for something as a service. However, it is a bad thing if the selling point is that you get to relieve yourself of the burden of evaluating and justifying the all-in costs of doing it one way or another.

Remember, you can pay now or pay later. Some times, it is nice to get to pay later.

What do you think. Please leave a comment.

©2009 George M. Tomko All Rights Reserved