I See Blue Clouds, I See Green Clouds, I See Clouds Everywhere

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Does the hype around cloud computing hold water?


There is a storm of hype around enterprise cloud computing these days; one only need to look at recent news from Amazon, IBM, and Microsoft touting the extensive benefits of moving enterprise computing to "the cloud." But what is this nebulous cloud, anyway, and why should an SMB care?


There is little industry consensus regarding the definition of cloud computing. Gartner Group defines cloud computing as a style of computing in which massively scalable IT-related capabilities are provided "as a service" using Internet technologies to multiple external customers. According to the research firm Saugatuck Technology, " 'Cloud Computing' encompasses on-demand infrastructure (compute, storage, networking), and on-demand software (operating systems, applications, middleware, management, and development tools), customized dynamically to fit current and immediate business process requirements, along with the ability to deliver and manage those business processes."


My colleague at MC Press Online, Chris Smith, writes in "Add Cloud Computing to Your Cocktail Party Prattle" that "there are essentially five components to the cloud: a user interface employed to request services; a catalog providing a list of services; a management system to control the computer resources; a provisioning tool that goes and gets the services from the cloud to meet the requests; and a monitoring tool that tracks usage by each user, and, of course, the servers, and these can be virtual servers as well as physical servers."


Meanwhile, IBM states that cloud computing is a model for network-delivered services, in which the user sees only the service and does not view the implementation or infrastructure required for its delivery. And then there is the contrarian viewpoint of Oracle's CEO, Larry Ellison, recently speaking at Oracle OpenWorld, "The interesting thing about cloud computing is that we've redefined cloud computing to include everything that we already do. I can't think of anything that isn't cloud computing with all of these announcements. The computer industry is the only industry that is more fashion-driven than women's fashion. Maybe I'm an idiot, but I have no idea what anyone is talking about. What is it? It's complete gibberish. It's insane. When is this idiocy going to stop? We'll make cloud computing announcements. I'm not going to fight this thing. But I don't understand what we would do differently in the light of cloud."


The technologies behind cloud computing are not new. The idea of hosting applications outside an organization's physical campus is decades old. What has changed are the power and flexibility of hardware, software written specifically for hosted environments, and, of course, the ubiquity and speed of the Internet. In addition, other factors that contribute to the cost/benefit equation of what is now termed "cloud computing" have changed.  Labor costs are higher than ever for IT operations, and those resources tend to be distributed, sometimes globally. In addition, power costs have soared while company leadership seeks a path toward becoming more "green," leaving companies to look for ways to reduce their environmental affects.


Yet as is the case with all technology hype, it's now difficult to find a vendor that does not claim to offer a cloud computing solution. This makes it extremely challenging for IT people to discern the wheat from the chaff. In addition, there should be clear distinctions between public clouds and internal or private clouds. Public clouds are available over the Internet from third-party providers. Private clouds are internal to an organization. However, cloud computing is real, with real offerings in use at real companies.


On November 24, IBM announced new cloud computing and consulting services intended to lessen the buyer objections often raised around cloud computing: data portability, reliability, and security. IBM claims its customers have saved up to 80 percent on floor space and 60 percent on power and cooling costs, with triple asset utilization. To grow its cloud business, IBM offers industry-specific services using IBM computing solutions as their platform. Security is an ongoing concern to those considering cloud computing, and IBM is tackling that challenge with a security architecture initiative. In August, the company announced it would build cloud computing centers in North Carolina and Tokyo at a cost of $400 million. These centers will showcase IBM's abilities in this area.


On November 14, Sun Microsystems, as part of its restructuring to cut costs, announced that Senior Vice President Dave Douglas will lead the company's efforts in Web-based cloud services. He will have responsibility for Sun's Network.com, the NetBeans developer platform, and the StarOffice portfolio. Sun said that Douglas' unit will depend upon Sun's existing online developer community for growing its efforts in cloud computing, which it believes will result in future revenues. Whether the company can deliver a cloud computing initiative while it goes through the adjustment of losing 15-18 percent of its workforce remains to be seen. But the focus at the SVP level should give the initiative some punch in the company. So should the fact that it owns MySQL, one of the most widely used databases in cloud computing environments. Also complementary to its cloud efforts is its virtualization focus, Solaris operating system, and of course its server line. Sun clearly has the technology elements upon which it could base a sound cloud computing strategy.


Amazon, best known for its online shopping services, is emerging as a key player in cloud computing. Its subsidiary, Amazon Web Services LLC (AWS) announced public beta of its CloudFront self-service, pay-as-you-go Web service for content delivery on November 18. Amazon's trump card in all this is its own global computing infrastructure, which it claims is highly reliable after years of serving as a $15 billion retail business and the most widely used shopping destination on the Internet. Also, CloudFront integrates with Amazon's Simple Storage Service (S3) Web interface, Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) Web service for resizable compute capacity, SimpleDB for running real-time queries,  and Simple Queue Service (SQS) for message queue storage and movement. Add Amazon's experience and the package is attractive. The real question is whether Amazon can convince those enterprises outside the online retail space that it can understand their business requirements and thus tailor its services to them. In that regard, IBM, with its industry foci, seems to have a leg up right now. However, the Amazon cost structure is extremely attractive and could position Amazon as the cloud service of choice for SMBs without extensive industry-specific requirements.


One can't talk enterprise computing without mentioning Microsoft. On October 27, at its Professional Developers Conference, Microsoft announced Windows Azure, a cloud-based service foundation. Microsoft, which opts to call its approach "software plus services" rather than the industry-accepted term Software as a Service (SaaS), said the platform combines cloud-based developer capabilities with storage, computational, and networking infrastructure services, all hosted on servers operating within Microsoft's global datacenter network. Developers can then deploy applications in the cloud or on-premises using the Microsoft.NET Framework and Visual Studio.


In a recent research report, "Windows Azure: Microsoft's Cloud with a Blue-Sky Lining" Saugatuck Technology asserts that "Azure should be seen as highly visible evidence of Microsoft's business strategy to protect and extend its own market presence--beginning with recruiting and retaining its large army of developers as it moves beyond its foundational on-premise software business.  Azure may be considered a strategic Microsoft acknowledgement that SaaS and clouds are core to software industry growth." Technology aside, an issue for Microsoft to overcome in enterprises is its previous reluctance to openly embrace cloud computing concepts.


Other enterprise technology vendors have also made noise about cloud computing, including Google, HP, Intel, and Yahoo! Google offers hosted Web site search and collaboration tools, while the others collaborated on a global, multi-data-center, open-source test bed for the advancement of cloud computing research and education. The goal of the HP-Intel-Yahoo initiative is to promote open collaboration among industry, academia, and governments by removing the financial and logistical barriers to research in data-intensive, Internet-scale computing, said the companies in a July 29 press release.


The bottom line is that while cloud computing has potential benefits, including lower costs and reduced carbon footprint, it is early in the evolution of the offerings and there is much hype and confusion. Larry Ellison has a valid point amidst his rantings. IT managers need to ask hard questions of the vendors. What do they mean by cloud computing? Which of their clients are using it? What are some measured benefits their clients are experiencing? It does not make sense to turn over the applications infrastructure to jump into the clouds unless there is clear direction. IT managers should also challenge the carbon footprint assertions. Buying unneeded, new green technologies only adds to wasteful consumption. The solution is only green when the entire system turnover nets out as beneficial to the environment.