April 5, 2011

Cloud Surfing Made Simple

Nicole Hemsoth

By Alex Lesser, Vice President, Cloud/Data Infrastructure Group at PSSC Labs

What is a cloud? Obviously it is group of small water particles we see in the Earth’s atmosphere.  But when combined with the word “computing” a cloud takes on a life of its own. The best definition of cloud that I have heard is that it is simply “the easy button”. I’m certain many meeting questions are answered with a simple, “We’ll just use the cloud.”  While this may be a naïve notion, I can’t agree more. And in today’s complex world who can blame us for wanting to find the simple answer to everything?  But is the answer really that simple? 

Cloud Evolution

Let’s set the way back time machine to the late 80’s and early 90’s, a revolutionary technology offered us the ability to find the answer to everything. This technology was famously coined “the Internet.” Suddenly we had the ability to instantaneously access information from anywhere in the world. The name was exotic at first, but in computer time an antiquated phrase at just 20 years old.  We are a next generation society. We have next generation cell phones, next generation advertising, next generation genome sequencing and of course, next generation Internet. To a great degree cloud computing is simply the evolution of the Internet. Fortunately the answer to cloud computing does not end there. I believe a deeper understanding can help to explain how we are developing tools to store, manipulate and track ever-increasing amounts of data.

At it’s core, cloud computing is a remote computing environment which includes processors, storage, memory, operating system, applications and a network connection which allows people to access those resources.  My organization PSSC Labs has been delivering cloud computing systems for over a decade, well before the term cloud computing came about.  We refer to our systems as “Computer Clusters”. We delivered our 1000th PowerWulf Computer Cluster in 2009.   Many people may not immediately recognize our systems as cloud computers. They are not massive systems  filling an entire 25,000 square foot warehouse. Most of the organizations using these systems are not publicly traded.  Our Computer Clusters are designed and custom-configured to meet the needs of specific computing goals. 

Public & Private Clouds

As the term continues to evolve, cloud computers will further delineate to be either “Public” or “Private”.  Public clouds are just that–public. This means that any organization has the ability to access the available computing resource. Many companies, large and small, are creating and marketing public clouds. One important note just because the cloud is public does not necessarily mean that it is free to use. In fact, most public clouds require users to pay subscription fees.  My organization uses one of the more commonly recognized Public Cloud Computing companies Salesforce.com. Salesforce.com offers us the computing resources to manage, monitor and update our growing sales team. We pay a monthly fee to access Salesforce.com, upload information, and track data.  Salesforce.com is outside of our organization and therefore is part of the Public network.  However, the information that I upload to Salesforce.com however is private, and hopefully remains private.  

Private clouds, on the other hand, reside within an organization’s firewall and are not accessible by anyone who has not been granted access. This is the far more common Cloud Computer. Many companies have invested heavily in their in-house computing resources. These computing resources are accessible only by individuals within the company. The private clouds greatly outnumber public clouds. Most organizations consider sensitive data critical to their business.  Letting any intellectual property outside the company firewall is a risk most companies have not taken.

A line is being drawn in the sand–will public clouds eventually replace private clouds? For me, this argument is non-essential. Instead, we should focus on the fact that computing resource needs are growing, and fast. In less than 10 years we have seen the birth of several massive computing facilities, each of which would fill a football stadium. Data is being generated at petabytes per second. We need to find a smarter, more efficient way of creating sustainable, high performance cloud computing infrastructures. We are working to deliver compute and storage solutions for any size public and private clouds.