Cloud computing: clouds aloud

Cloud Computing: the concept is going to reorganise the tenets enterprise IT; but it's going to take a little time - and effort - before its full force is felt.

Cloud computing has become a prominent battleground among major IT vendors, because this is where they see most of their products - whether hardware, software or network infrastructure - being deployed in the future. Enterprises, meanwhile, have seemingly been slow to follow.

This may be because standards are immature, and the whole model is not yet fit for running mission-critical applications, but even so there is a glaring lack of enterprise involvement in cloud standards-forming initiatives.

There is evidence, however, that enterprises are having input, joining pilot projects where at least core components of cloud computing are being evaluated.

Microsoft has 45,000 customers for its 30-day trial of the Business Production Online Suite (BPOS); 8,000 customers have gone on to purchase the suite, including the Wise Group, a UK social enterprise specialising in employment, recruitment, and training, which has used it effectively to outsource email management for its 400 staff. As the group's head of ICT Alan Lee-Bourke puts it, "we're looking to get rid of as much hardware and software as possible to let us get on with the interesting stuff".

In this context cloud computing sounds like 'traditional' IT outsourcing, but the difference is that this is not just about ownership of IT staff and resources, but a new way of organising, acquiring, and paying for IT infrastructures and services, with outsourcing being just part of the mix.

Characterised this way, the move towards cloud computing seems certain, even if enterprises are reluctant to move forward too rapidly right now, according to Glenn O'Donnell, senior analyst at Forrester Research. "Only a few enterprises are actually adopting cloud services at the moment, but the fact that any are is notable," says O'Donnell. "It is clearly an inevitability."

The G-Cloud

Certainly this is the view of the UK government, which announced in June 2009 that all future IT purchases must be "consistent with cloud computing", so that all digital services can be moved into its private, secure, so-called 'G-Cloud', dedicated to government agencies. The government hopes this will realise a return on investment in three years, after which the benefits of elastic scaling, rapid provisioning and infrastructure savings through advanced virtualisation will reduce IT procurement costs substantially.

The catch could be that, while one aim is to avoid the past public-sector IT procurement mishaps caused by projects becoming too big, the G-Cloud itself will be a major deployment. Neither is it well defined, points out BT's manager of business applications Chris Lindsay: "Given there are many definitions, and almost no standards, I think the request is in the right spirit; but with the lack of standards it's a free-for-all."

Lindsay admits though that G-Cloud sets a precedent that may be followed not just across the public sector but also in specific industry groups in the private sector. "I expect other sectors to place similar demands to allow them to take advantage of cloud economics," he says.

G-Cloud will be an example of a private cloud, which in this case means an IT infrastructure dedicated to a related group of organisations, with the economies of scale and flexible provisioning coming from sharing of resources among different agencies and groups. Definitions, however, do vary, and Jim DeHaven, business transformation manager of data-centre solutions at Cisco, suggests that, in a virtualised IT world, a private cloud does not necessarily have to be built from private infrastructure.

"Private clouds are a federation of an organisation's enterprise cloud infrastructure, and services from public cloud offerings," he believes. "They will therefore provide organisations with the flexibility and agility associated with the services of third-party providers, without relinquishing control over valuable corporate information."

A public cloud, on the other hand, will provide IT facilities, services and software on a pay-as-you go model utilising common hardware, software, and networking infrastructure. It is this form of cloud that arguably will have the most profound impact on IT and the way it is consumed, particularly by SMEs but also by smaller departments in larger organisations, according to Andrew Bond, technology director for core technology and business intelligence at Oracle.

"For mid-sized businesses, the top reasons people are looking at cloud computing are that it's so much faster and cheaper to get started," Bond says. "Mid-sized businesses may not have sophisticated IT departments or the money to invest in upfront capital expenses, so using a public cloud provider may be very attractive.

"Even for larger companies, using an external cloud vendor may enable small teams or departments to get a new application or a development/test environment running in days instead of the months."

The self-service aspect of public clouds means that small teams can avoid a long wait for IT departments to approve project requests, procure servers, find room for them in the data centre, install software, configure software, and so on, Bond adds. He also points out that testing could be particularly profitably run in a cloud, because it is characterised by very low utilisation rates: "Machines usually sit around idly consuming power, cooling, space and administrative labour. The pay-for-use aspect is perfect for short-term testing, development, or pilot projects.

Clouds will also be ideally suited for back-up and disaster recovery, with some early adopters already taking advantage, according to Dave Mitchell, IBM's director of strategy for relationships with developers. "Beauty company Elizabeth Arden worked with us to create an innovative approach to protect business-critical information through the cloud," Mitchell says. "In engaging with IBM's Business Continuity and Resiliency Services (BCRS), the company has implemented a solution that assures the global restoration, recovery, and resilience of its key mission-critical applications, including enterprise resource planning, data warehouse, email backup, and archival from any BCRS recovery centre."

High-performance computing

Another area ripe for clouds identified by IBM's Dave Mitchell are high-performance computing (HPC) applications: while those such as numerical weather-forecasting consume massive amounts of computational power almost continuously, many organisations have much more spasmodic requirements - in data analysis or mining for example.

 "IBM already provides 'Computing on Demand' services - ideal for HPC applications that are compute intensive, such as financial analytics, research and development workloads," says Mitchell.

While IBM is well placed to provide cloud infrastructures, other major vendors are trying to play to their strengths - for example, Cisco in networking, and Microsoft in providing the operating system driving the cloud. Microsoft's main cloud focus is Azure, an operating system derived from Windows due for commercial release later in 2009, and even then not quite the finished article, Mark Taylor, Microsoft UK developer and platform evangelism director, admits: "We see our Windows Azure platform evolving over time to be able to run more types of application," he says.

However, Taylor does cite one prominent user - budget airline Easyjet, which has used Azure as the platform for a mobile-payments and seat-upgrade system. Initially this will be just for ground staff on mobile terminals, reducing the need for fixed airport desks, but there is obvious potential for use by customers from mobile handsets in future.

Indeed, according to ABI research analyst Mark Beccue, the cloud model will solve the problem of multiple mobile operating systems and display types, enabling developers to address a larger market without having to create multiple versions.

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