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November 21, 2008 • Vol.30 Issue 47
Page(s) 23 in print issue

In The Cloud
Web-Delivered IT Services & Applications Are Finally A Reality
Visions of ubiquitous, massively scaled compute power used to deliver information and service to roaming, remote appliances have been around about as long as the Internet itself. The vision has been transformed and rebranded over the years, from “grid computing” to “utility computing” and finally to the current moniker, “cloud computing,” and while experts may quibble about subtle distinctions between each appellation, the basic concept remains intact. Vic Berger, a consultant for CDW, notes that the trend toward cloud computing can be traced back to the early days of timesharing and later to outsourced hosting. The cloud merely takes this notion to another level of abstraction by providing compute or application services instead of raw infrastructure.

Despite the promised convenience, versatility, and economies of scale of virtual computing power plants, many question whether enterprises are ready to adopt such a radical departure from traditional IT practices. They cite concerns over data security, application performance, and network reliability as reasons cloud computing may just be a passing fad soon to join the scrapheap of other discarded IT concepts such as push technology and WebTV. There is cause for healthy skepticism, but most experts feel that cloud computing deserves the buzz and isn’t likely to fade into obscurity.

The Cloud From Two Perspectives

As with any new and overly hyped term, “cloud computing” is used to describe several distinct concepts. According to Gartner analyst David Mitchell Smith, “The term ‘cloud computing’ has come to mean two very different things: a broader use that focuses on ‘cloud’ and a more focused use on system infrastructure and virtualization.” He sees the first, more expansive, usage covering “cloud computing services” and the second, more technical, perspective describing “cloud-enabling technologies.”

The broad, comprehensive view of cloud computing, and probably what most people think of when they hear the term, is the convergence of the Internet and SaaS, or software to provide application functionality to systems anywhere on the Web from a central location. According to Smith, the key concept is the ability to access cloud-based services from anywhere. In Gartner’s view, “The off-premises nature of cloud services is the point of reference and applicability to intra-enterprise use is a secondary effect.”

In contrast, Smith says that the notion of cloud-enabling technologies refers to “a use of technologies, including virtualization and automation, that focuses more on the computing than on the cloud aspect, with emphasis placed on the technologies that enable the creation and delivery of service-based capabilities.” He adds that, “Although these perspectives are different, there is a connection between them. Any provider of cloud-computing services must have an environment that includes an infrastructure to support their delivery. Virtualization often is used to implement this underlying infrastructure to support delivery of cloud-computing services.”

Advantages & Drawbacks Of The Cloud Model

Buying compute time, storage, or applications from the cloud promises a number of advantages over customer-owned IT infrastructure. As IT critic Nicholas Carr points out, cloud providers can use massive economies of scale to provide services more efficiently while eliminating up-front capital equipment or software licensing costs. Smith says this utility-like scaling makes standard or commodity functions such as email, storage, or archiving likely candidates for the cloud. Cloud-based services also reduce or eliminate local administration overhead while providing automatic updates of new features or bug fixes without user intervention. Another beneficial use of the cloud is what Smith describes as a hybrid usage model, called “cloud-bursting,” in which online services are used in conjunction with existing infrastructure to provide what he terms “IT overdraft protection,” or added capacity to handle usage spikes without the need for spare, often idle, equipment.

Both Berger and Smith feel a major impediment to the adoption of cloud technology is the basic human tendency to resist change. Berger notes that IT departments are always reluctant to cede control to outside organizations but says he is seeing greater cultural acceptance as younger IT staffers, who grew up in the online world of P2P file sharing and social networks, begin to permeate and ascend in their companies’ IT hierarchies.

The other major reason companies offer for resisting cloud services is security. Berger says a lack of trust in a provider’s security processes is one element of concern, but Smith notes that data integrity, backup, and recovery are related issues. Cloud computing means companies are reliant on the service provider’s security and data handling procedures and may have little visibility into the implementation specifics beyond terms spelled out in service-level agreements.

Cloud (What Is It Good For?)

Smith says cloud computing holds greater appeal for SMEs than large enterprises, as they are more resource-constrained, don’t have an extensive legacy infrastructure, and tend to act more like consumers when buying IT products and services. One hot area for cloud providers is IaaS (infrastructure as a service), and online storage in particular, which Berger notes attracts buyers with its ease and convenience: “Businesses just want the storage, not the hardware headaches.” Smith adds that basic compute services such as Amazon’s EC2 are another attractive cloud opportunity. Most experts also see the cloud as an ideal delivery vehicle for SaaS, particularly targeted business applications like CRM.

John Michelsen, founder and chief scientist at iTKO, says, “B2B applications are also great candidates for cloud-based services, since such apps can be easier to integrate and provision if each side of the B2B connection is in the cloud.”

Here To Stay

Cloud computing has generated so much buzz that Dell tried (unsuccessfully) to copyright the term, but experts agree it’s no passing fad. Perhaps the most significant sign that the cloud has gone mainstream is Microsoft’s recent announcement of the Azure Services Platform, which will eventually deliver the company’s major client and server applications via the Internet from a cloud infrastructure. Just as the release of Internet Explorer heralded the Internet’s arrival for mainstream business use, so, too, may Microsoft’s latest effort serve as an indicator that the cloud is entering a new phase of growth and maturation.

by Kurt Marko

The Cloud As Information Utility

One of most vocal and influential cloud-computing proponents, IT analyst and critic Nicholas Carr had an epiphany when visiting a large IT services provider. He describes this revelation of the future of cloud computing this way in his latest book, The Big Switch:

“I realized that what I was standing in was a prototype of a new kind of power plant—a computing plant that would come to power our information age the way great electric plants powered the industrial age. Connected to the Net, this modern dynamo would deliver into our businesses and homes vast quantities of digitized information and data-processing might. It would run all the complicated software programs that we used to have to install on our own little computers. And, just like the earlier electric dynamos, it would operate with an efficiency never possible before. It would turn computing into a cheap, universal commodity.”


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