posted 15 Sep 2009 in Volume 12 Issue 10
Head in the cloud?
Mark Lewis discusses the current hype surrounding cloud computing and some factors to bear in mind when planning an enterprise implementation.
For the uninitiated, what is cloud computing and how does it work?
Fundamentally cloud computing is about separating infrastructure from applications and providing software or a service to the user. It enables individuals or businesses to run applications without managing a dedicated, fixed infrastructure.
Recently there has been a lot of ‘buzz’ in this area, with people latching on to different trends and products, so cloud computing needs to be broken down in order to be understood comprehensively.
First, there’s the cloud infrastructure, such as Amazon web services and the work we are doing from a virtualisation perspective with VMware. This is separating the core infrastructure – the hardware – from any layer of operating system or software application. The flexible, dynamic infrastructure resulting from this separation is the fundamental characteristic of a cloud environment.
The next layer is services – for example, storage as a service – and platforms or environment layers, such as Salesforce.com or Microsoft Azure.
Often the term ‘cloud’ is used to describe actual cloud applications – for example Google. However, I don’t consider Google or Salesforce ‘new’, so one of the most exciting developments is virtualisation. This is the virtual infrastructure layer that enables us to run any application in a utility-style environment, anywhere that has a cloud infrastructure.
One of the key points to remember is that while we automatically think of services like Amazon as cloud infrastructures, one of the most popular developments will soon be ‘private’ clouds within company data centres. It’s not just a public or Google phenomenon. Any large enterprise will probably want to set up their own private cloud data centre or applications, as they will probably run with the same efficiency and, in many cases, with greater security and protection of resources than a public cloud.
It’s interesting that you mention the buzz around cloud – bearing in mind that SaaS and similar services have been around for years. Where has this hype come from?
It’s all about the virtualisation. When we acquired VMware, we saw virtualisation as a key enabler which had the potential to really change the paradigm for computing. We’ve grown up on this client-server era methodology: one computer, one operating system and one application. In the past, if you needed a new application, you had to buy new hardware and a new operating system. Virtualisation is moving us towards the equivalent of a software mainframe, where every PC can be sliced and workloads moved from computer to computer dynamically, which brings incredible economic savings and advantages.
Within businesses and IT we were potentially wasting 90 per cent of our computes without virtualisation so from a management perspective it is an incredible productivity and efficiency gain to manage everything in one environment without coping with various hardware nuances. In SaaS it’s been an important move, but generally required a company to switch from in-house to external providers and completely change processes and retrain staff. With cloud, it’s transparent to users – they can run the same applications within their data centre, they just run them more efficiently.
Management ears will prick up at the prospect of efficiency gains. What are the other benefits?
Mainly the flexibility – remember that clouds can be public, private and even mixed. Businesses can use their own data centres but move less critical applications or run on-demand services externally to create mixed models. That is extremely powerful as it enables the quality of the applications to improve because of the consistency of the implementation and the environment. I think it’s a real game-changing area when it comes to decoupling things.
The challenge is in understanding how your users want to manage their content and information in general. The good thing about virtualisation is that it provides utility flexibility and agility. But, if you think about it, there’s a real difference between an electrical grid – that is, a cloud computing utility if you will, something that is supplying processing power and can be virtual and dynamic – and your intellectual property (IP), which is an asset. It might be in software format, but it’s a physical asset so it can’t ‘appear and disappear’ in a cloud. It has to transcendental and stored securely in line with compliance requirements. This is partly the reason why we’re not all using Google today. It’s an incredible product for the public web as it provides access to the wealth of information on the internet but most organisations want to segment their IP from their competitors and the outside world, while enabling easy access to their employees. This is a completely different challenge, which cloud really highlights.If you’re going to have applications running inside your four-wall data centre and will be using a cloud – or even an external application – how do you protect your information? You might be fine holding or running the application on Salesforce, for example, but you might not want all your contracts and sensitive data sitting out on a third party supplier’s platform.
It must be difficult to maintain the correct balance between mitigating the risk of outsourcing while keeping the business of knowledge sharing and collaboration running smoothly?
People need to be very aware of this. There is a big difference between running an application and delegating responsibility for your own IP. Once users recognise this, they may choose to have all internal cloud applications. It is very feasible that large corporations won’t outsource at all as they will be able to create clouds as efficiently as any external provider and can gain internal efficiencies by managing their own computes and data.
Others may split their applications, keeping sensitive information in internal data centres, but placing other applications and data on the web. For those businesses that want to run more applications outside, it’s just a matter of sitting back and looking at your information strategy. You can run applications in the cloud, but you don’t have to put all your assets in. You can build connectors to other applications so that you can maintain your management of critical information, while also exposing that information to the cloud as and when it is needed. Similarly, you can still store copies of information that may exist in the cloud online and provide retention management, search and e-discovery capabilities for data and applications.
To what extent does the fact that cloud is associated with some big consumer names (such as Google and Amazon) ease user adoption and usability?
There’s a place for leveraging web technologies within the workplace and we really need to look at how these tools would be used in such an environment. It comes back to the information aspect again. Most of these tools, such as Facebook and Twitter, create information – or rather the end users create and share information through them. Most of the time the interaction and the user interface is loved by employees and what organisations need to figure out is whether they are creating value for the business – whether they are able to secure the information and maintain conversations between the appropriate teams. So, there is great collaboration software but you have to be careful. It comes down to the level of security that companies want to use when leveraging those tools. But, yes, we’re all using the paradigms and methodologies that have been born out of web-based tools.
Do you foresee a time when cloud could replace the requirement for internal platforms and infrastructure – even IT teams – completely?
In my mind, the function of IT never goes away as we will always need individuals responsible for matching corporate needs with information technology. Generally what happens with these trends, whether organisations outsource or run their applications in-house, is that the role of IT evolves more to a business strategist involved with technology, rather than maybe a person in a back office ensuring the machines are still running. I see it as an evolution of IT that will be consistent: you will always need such people to help drive the needs of the company as there are still complexities to overcome when it comes to integration.
Mark Lewis is the president of the content management and archiving division at EMC. For more information visit www.emc.com