Hawking my Technical Elixir

Elixirs, like blogs and IT buzz words, hold the promise of fixing a wide assortment of ailments with just a minor investment of time and/or money. A blog will promise to enable you to do something wonderful (get a job, double your salary, etc.) by following a few simple steps. The latest IT “fad” will cut your expenses and grow your business. As I kick off my new blog, I ask for a bit of your time. I promise giving you the power to cut through the hype via one simple step: understanding what is in the elixir.

Yes, that is me with the handlebar mustache hawking my elixir.

Yes, that is me with the handlebar mustache hawking my elixir.

An elixir is a liquid often claimed to have a beneficial effect. In its simplest form, a solvent, often part alcohol, is used to deliver one or more active ingredients. There are beneficial elixirs with known active ingredients for medical purposes: antihistamines, analgesics, etc. The term is often associated with a liquid with curing and/or magical properties. It could turn base metals into gold. The elixir of life makes you immortal. Travelling salesmen from a hundred plus years ago would sell elixirs with exotic ingredients with claims of curing whatever ailed you. Such claims provided the connotation of terms such as snake oil salesman and traveling medicine shows.

The key points of the sale were touting ingredients that sounded impressive and mysterious. Sometimes they were based on secrets of a given culture, such as Native American cures hyped in the Old West of the United States. Sometimes they were based on exotic plants or animals, such as snakes. Real active ingredients such as narcotics and stimulants could have real physical effects. They may be beneficial, but dosing was not scientific, and application to a given ailment was ad hoc. Some were downright harmful, such as radium water that caused radiation poisoning.

Reaction to ill effects of patent medicine led to the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906. The publicized death of Eben Byers [“The Radium Water Worked Fine until His Jaw Came Off” per the Wall Street Journal] resulted in increased powers of the FDA. We now have labels that list active ingredients and doses, restrictions on claims made in advertisements, and rules to publicize side effects in advertising that makes claims of medical benefit.

Blogs make claims for various reasons: to get web-based ad revenue or promote a product or company. Only some of your time may be at risk, but that is valuable. Finding trusted sources such as colleagues or professional societies helps reduces the noise.

Vague buzz words need definition and products and services should be evaluated individually. The definition of cloud is, well, cloudy, as is big data. In a discussion within CSC, we allowed that publicly hosted, utility-priced, Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) is Cloud. Is anything else “Cloud”? Opinions were mixed. A TV ad will tell you that a personal networked storage device is cloud. To avoid vagueness of product and claims, we need to understand the “active ingredients” more than a vague term such as cloud, big data, or elixir. Without an FDA establishing rules for listing ingredients and making claims, we are left to do this ourselves. Well, maybe the “one simple step” I claimed in the intro was hype.

The delivery agent may have impact and should be understood. For cloud, what networks attach you to the services provided? Your service will be no better than these networks. Understand the active ingredients and dosage, such as CPU, RAM, and storage, and benefits, such as the computing needs these provide. Evaluate potential harmful effects and risks, comparing local hosting versus cloud. Past performance is a key part of this evaluation. Did anyone’s jaw fall off or were customers’ needs met?

Cloud can be more of a business model than a technical model. You can pay per dose versus per bottle. A Service Level Agreement (SLA) establishes delivery parameters (up time, recovery, ability to scale, etc.). Can you triple the number of “doses” and in what time frame? What is included and what is not? I can extend the elixir analogy to understanding your medical plan coverage in terms of ongoing costs, cost per use, access to providers, etc. Few people hire their own doctors, and most buy services as needed under a service plan set by medical insurance.

Lastly, and most importantly, before choosing an elixir, you need a diagnosis. What are your requirements? Any analysis of need and quantity are derived from these.

I took your time talking about elixirs to show an analogy of where we are and where we need to go. We need to move from vaguely defined terms and promises to well understood active ingredients, their impacts, and risks based on past performance. Besides understanding the technical aspects, “as a Service” requires understanding the business aspects as it is a different model of acquiring capability. So, in summary, there are three “simple” steps: 1) diagnose your needs, 2) research what is in the elixir, and 3) understand the business model of the agreement to deliver it.

What is the active ingredient in my technical elixir? Old fashioned systems engineering. It cures many ills.


  1. Nice first post Bob.


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