Cloud computing: Who will be doing it and why

Only when suppliers agree on cloud computing technology standards will the platform reach its full potential. Then companies can choose to adopt it based on security, performance, compliance and costs.

Cloud computing, also referred to as mesh computing or elastic cloud computing, boils down to an old idea that now uses new technology. Suppliers are combining networking technology with one or more forms of virtualization technology and then offering that combination as a platform for virtual desktop environments or virtual server environments.

In the past, suppliers used such terms as service bureaus or application service providers to describe a service that made it possible for an organization to outsource a workload or, perhaps, an entire data center. This idea was very enticing for small to medium-sized organizations. It also was interesting to managers of remote or branch offices of a large organization.

Now that virtualization technology makes it possible for an application or an entire client or server environment to be put in a container, or virtualized, and then run somewhere else on the network, these suppliers are saying that the IT infrastructure can be thought of as a variable expense rather than a fixed expense. That is, organizations only need to pay for the IT functions they use rather than purchasing hardware, licensing software and hiring an IT staff.

What they don't say, however, is that an organization's applications may need to be rewritten using new tools supplied by the cloud vendor. Only after the applications have been re-implemented using those tools can they be launched into the supplier's cloud.

Since there are no standards for writing the meta data that describes a container's contents and how the containers are created, deployed and managed, suppliers today are offering what amounts to a software lock-in that will tie organizations to that supplier's services forever. Suppliers like VMware Inc. and Citrix Systems Inc. are in the process of developing standards for cloud computing and gathering partners who promise to support those standards. Only when those standards are broadly accepted will tools be written that will support those standards. Cloud computing can really reach its potential once these tools are available for customers.

Although there are still issues to be resolved and technology to be designed, these suppliers present the utopian vision that organizations will no longer have to pay the full cost of the IT infrastructure. Companies are also being promised that they'll only be charged for the use they make of the IT infrastructure and the staff actually needed to support their work.

Does this sound like a warmed-over, virtualization-enhanced "utility computing" concept? It does to me. Does it mean that this approach is going to become a mainstay for all organizations in the coming year? Who, exactly, will use it and why would they bother?

Organizations are clearly moving in the direction of encapsulating their applications or application services and offering staff members, consultants and customers access through their favorite Web browser. Companies are choosing to support Web-based user interfaces rather than using custom or proprietary client software. They're often merely looking for ways to integrate the concept of cloud computing into their IT infrastructure, when and where it fits. For the most part, a company isn't really interested in allowing some supplier to insist that it change what its doing to fit into that supplier's infrastructure.

While cloud computing is the newest catch phrase, it's important to remember that organizations are deliberately adopting more general, lower-cost, highly interoperable technologies that make it possible for them to choose to use external services or systems. Business and mission-critical applications are unlikely to be moved into an external cloud for quite some time.

Organizations may, on the other hand, move these applications into an internal cloud so that business units can access them using any Web-based client system. Before an organization would move things into an external cloud, its IT executives would have to be convinced that the idea has proven itself and that the following issues have been resolved before it would move toward hosting everything in an external cloud:

Security: Who is allowed to see the organization's proprietary data?

Performance: Will the application systems really perform up to expectations during peak processing times?

Ownership of the data: Does the owner of the "cloud" own the data on the systems?

Reliability: An organization can deploy as many data centers and redundant systems as necessary to achieve uptimes needed. Will the "cloud" company do the same thing?

Compliance: Increasingly, public companies and companies in financial services and healthcare sectors face stringent regulations requiring them to be able to prove who had access to data, where and when it was processed and what software and hardware was in place when that data was processed. It's difficult enough to do this in one's own data centers. Will they allow it do be done in the cloud?

It's far more likely that organizations will deploy a Web-based access mechanism for these important applications and leave them where they are currently hosted. As the applications are updated, organizations are likely to create their own in-house cloud. Only after they have sufficient experience with this type of on-demand resources and pay-by-the-use environments will they assign some tasks to an external cloud.

They might consider moving some workloads into an external cloud once there is a critical need to take that step. These organizations are doing their best to find the proper tools to create their own internal clouds before going further down that path.

About the author: Daniel Kusnetzky, president of the Kusnetzky Group LLC, is responsible for research and analysis on the worldwide market for system software, open source software and virtualization software. He examines emerging technology trends, vendor strategies, research and development issues and end-user integration requirements. Mr. Kusnetzky has been involved with information technology since the late 1970s working for both end user organizations and IT equipment suppliers. Prior to founding the Kusnetzky Group, Mr. Kusnetzky was executive vice president of Corporate and Marketing Strategy for Open-Xchange. Prior to that, he worked for IT industry watcher IDC and Digital Equipment Corp. His comments and opinions have been published in the Boston Globe, Byte Magazine, ComputerWorld, Communications Week, eWeek, InfoWorld, Investor's Business Daily, Network World, New York Times, PC Week, PC World, San Jose Mercury News, Wall Street Journal, and many others. He has appeared on BBC, CNN, CNNfn, CNBC, MSNBC and NPR.

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