The cloud computing label has jumped the shark and is starting to cop a bashing from industry pundits — as is inevitable when hype overtakes substance. Baiting cloud enthusiasts may be good sport for contrary analysts and bloggers… but it is hardly constructive. As the effects of the meltdown in the global financial sector spread throughout the economy, the cloud will become an ever more important strategy for reducing both capex and opex – giving CIOs new options for responding to budget pressures in recessionary times.
While it is wise to be sceptical of marketing hype, we should not forget that there is real substance in the cloud (apologies for this metaphorical improbability).
Would the real cloud please step forward?
Leaving aside the label for the moment, what are the characteristics of cloud computing that make it worth considering as something new? Cloud computing is:
• Provided as a standardised utility: a set of service offerings provided largely on a similar, un-customised, basis to all customers — enabling unparalleled economies of scale.
• Delivered via the internet (of course): using industry-standard IP protocols and benefiting from the massive scale of investments in global internet capacity.
• Accessed via a web browser: providing a generic interface independent of operating system or access device.
• Founded on open standards and APIs: using SOA principles and web services logic.
• Self served: enabling customers to enrol in the service and manage their usage via online, self-serve processes.
• Inclusive of a range of services: from front-end applications through to back-end raw compute capacity.
• Always on: around-the-clock global availability.
• Scalable: able to absorb major variability in processing and storage demands.
• Pay as you go: with usage-driven charges and minimal up-front contractual commitments.
• Public or private: able to be deployed on an open global ICT infrastructure or a partitioned infrastructure specific to a customer’s needs.
While the ‘as-a-service’ label has increasingly been applied to three bundles (software, data and platform) cloud computing has become very broad — encompassing applications ranging from ERP systems through to widgets; application development tools and environments; storage; processing; systems management and security. Cloud computing = ‘as-much-ICT-as-you-want-as-a-service’.
Maybe a useful frame of reference is to consider cloud computing as like staying in a hotel, outsourcing as like renting a house, with your own in-house IT function as like owning a home. Then consider the scenario of accommodating a large extended and growing family. Some folks will prefer the stability of the family home, others the flexibility of a rented house and others the excitement and convenience of a hotel — be it budget or luxury, long or short-term.
Cloud computing introduces new options and flexibilities for the CIO and ought not to be written off simply as marketing hype.
Who is behind the cloud?
While salesforce.com is credited with popularising software-as-a-service, the broader notion of cloud computing has been launched by the likes of Amazon and Google. These internet giants introduced platform-as-a-service offerings to boost the ROI of their massive global computing infrastructures. For start-ups and SMEs there is great appeal in the “IT-department-as-a-service” provided, for example, by Amazon Web Services, Elastic Compute Cloud and Simple Storage Service and by Google Mail, Docs and App Engine.
Enterprises, however, are quite right to be cautious about relying on such consumer/SME-oriented suppliers for anything resembling a mission critical application or service.
Recently the major IT companies have started to see gold in the cloud, with investment in both purpose-built cloud computing infrastructure and in developing solutions to enterprise concerns regarding cloud trustworthiness. IBM is expanding its network of ‘Blue Cloud’ computing data centres and is making substantial investments in cloud computing R&D. HP, Intel and Yahoo are partnering to create new cloud R&D centres. Oracle and Intel are partnering on cloud infrastructure development.
Dive into the cloud?
From an enterprise perspective, however, there are a number of concerns. Application integration? Data security? E-discovery? Compliance? Disaster recovery? SLAs? Network bandwidth impacts and costs?
These concerns though, have much in common with those raised by the creation of internal shared ICT centres within organisations or the outsourcing of ICT functions. How do you control, or come to trust, that which you no longer own?
Cloud computing is part of an ongoing trend towards the consolidation of ICT services into ever larger, ever more interconnected factories — now on a global scale. As has been seen before, this brings both new solutions and new problems.
Cloud computing can, and will, provide robust and reliable solutions for the enterprise CIO.
The trick, as always, is to work out where these solutions apply and how to manage them.
Steve Hodgkinson is research director, public sector at Ovum.
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