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January 24, 2011

Cisco’s Cloud CTO Clarifies Strategy, Describes Datacenters of the Future

Nicole Hemsoth

Lew Tucker discusses the datacenter of the future, sheds light on the “many clouds” theory, and describes the perfect storm in computing that is leading to new paradigms in IT.

Although Cisco has a viable stake in the future of cloud computing, its position has been difficult to pin down, despite the fact that their Unified Computing System (UCS) server architecture and network commitments present a solid chance for them to have an impact on the market.

Other than a few scattered announcements and the publicized positioning of Lew Tucker (of Sun and Salesforce fame) as Cloud CTO nearly six months ago, Cisco has been reluctant to announce a full-blown strategy around how it plans to stake its claim in the arena. The relative silence was broken this past week, when the company finally revealed its approach somewhat formally in a video interview with Tucker.

In something of a “coming out party” for Cisco’s cloud roadmap for the future, Lew Tucker chatted at length about what role the company might play in a space that is still shaking out its winners and losers on the cloud computing front.

At the beginning of his tenure, Tucker restated the value of the network as the heart of cloud—a fact that he claims is overlooked in all of the hype and excitement over cloud computing. In the strategy interview, however, he expands on the role of the network in securely delivering applications and gives us a glimpse into his view of the datacenter of the future.

A World of Many Clouds

When asked about the vendor shakeout that is inevitable as the cloud market matures in coming years, Tucker stated that instead of seeing the mega-providers who stake a claim in all verticals, there will be a development of industry-specific clouds.

He notes that clouds will form around needs and communities, thus for example within the healthcare industry there will be a small throng of HIPPA-compliant clouds as well as similarly fine-tuned offerings with a keen eye on the regulatory and security needs of government, financial services and others.

In light of this concept of specialized clouds, Tucker stated that some of Cisco’s enterprise-class customers are looking at what types of enterprise-class private clouds can be hosted by service providers now.

Despite this focus on “many clouds” serving disparate needs-based communities, Lew Tucker feels that in the future there is a “much larger cloud on the horizon” that is visible when we step back and look at the breadth of connected devices that are available at the present—a number that is sure to grow. From automobiles to sensors to mobile devices of all shapes and sizes, this complexity and range provides “the greatest example for why networking is so critical to the cloud” and how security is now an even more pressing issue.

In Tucker’s view, “if we look at the growing number of connected devices, whether mobile devices or even sensors with electrical power meters or even in the automobile itself, those devices are increasingly connected to the internet. So now you have in essence a  mini-cloud driving around on the highway—this is the greatest example for why networking is so critical to the cloud, now we need to have the security associated with these networked devices”

The Datacenter of the Future

Revealing Cisco’s general strategy in cloud computing over the coming years, Tucker emphasized the dual, complimentary roles of networking and system architecture as key to changing the way datacenters are built.

In addition to providing a rough approach to helping new customers build clouds using a “building blocks” approach wherein the essential infrastructure components are provided as well as looking at the broad range of devices to see the diverse array of end users and needs, one of the most striking elements of Tucker’s talk was his vision of how datacenters, based on the cloud model, are set to change.

In Lew Tucker’s opinion, there are certain points of dramatic inefficiency in the way datacenters are built and managed. As he described:

“When you build out internal architectures where you put an application on a server with an operating system, and then you move to the next application—as you add more and more applications into the datacenter, each with their own individual architectures, you don’t get economies of scale, you get very low utilization, and you get enormous complexity because you’ve tied the applications to the infrastructure.

Instead, what we’re doing with cloud is we’re saying build a cloud over the infrastructure…turn the infrastructure itself into a service—in which now the applications become virtualized so they can pick whatever operating system they need, they’re running on a virtual machine, they can be turned on or off—they are essentially being provided on-demand.

This means that the IT organization at these future datacenters can scale large to get efficiencies that way and can become totally automated since the infrastructure’s main goal is simply to provide a pool of resources to be used by the applications. This is a much more efficient way to build out datacenters and drive down cost as well as increase agility.”

Tucker also explained the concept of the network as a platform, which in essence means “creating a network platform driven by programmatic APIs we can do things like automate and build systems like UCS which is driven by APIs. Now software itself can do all the provisioning. It’s no longer the individual switch or router, it’s the system that comprises the network that drives it.”

While it is not difficult to see the position of Cisco’s UCS in the cloud strategy-wise, Tucker explains that part of the strategy is to actually build APIs into any networkable product the company sells that will touch the cloud.

A Perfect Storm in Computing

Perhaps not surprisingly, Tucker sees the cloud as the product of a natural course in computing evolution, all with the network at the heart of progress.  He briefly tracks the crescendo in network and architecture innovation that has led to cloud computing on a ten-year graph, beginning in the 1960s with mainframes, the minicomputer in the 70s, the client server to web transition that took place from the 80s into the 90s, followed by virtualization in 2000—and into this new decade that is defined by cloud.

This progression on a decade-long chart is, in Tucker’s view, a movement that is simply the manifestation of the new internet, a natural extension of a movement that has been building and compounding, just as it has with other technological paradigm shifts.
In addition to faster, more ubiquitous access to networked devices that are providing this next opportunity in computing, Tucker describes the “perfect storm” that is brewing. These storm clouds are “forming between the continued advance of Moore’s Law, which is driving down the cost of computing, coupled with the explosive growth of the Internet, as well as technology advances like virtualization.” While he acknowledges that this new era is still dawning, there are signs that cloud computing is the next major shift in IT by pointing to cloud service providers like Amazon Web Services (AWS). 

Tucker argues that AWS is at the forefront of making it possible for web developers and small companies to get into cloud computing—and that this is changing the economics of computing in yet another way.

As Cisco’s Cloud CTO claims, “If you’re going to Sandhill Road to get money as a startup they’re not going to give you money for infrastructure; they’re going to say you go and buy it from the cloud—that way they lower their risk and there’s the pay-as-you-go model.”

In addition to seeing public cloud resources as driving business forward, Tucker also sees rapid movement in enterprise adoption of private clouds as companies see this trend, which is driven by economies of scale, and seek to take advantage of it.

The problem is, until this more refined model of datacenter innovation takes place as described, it will be difficult for enterprise datacenters to achieve the same cost benefit. This is where Cisco is making its play—in refining datacenter architecture to look more like the large cloud service providers versus the traditional model of infrastructure as the carrier of applications.

You can view the full interview with Tucker here.