Clearing the Cloudy Air

By Derrick Harris

August 25, 2008

Personally, I have had my fill of cloud computing for a while. Depending on who you ask, it’s either great or it’s terrible, it’s either the biggest IT innovation since the PC or it’s an elaborate ruse designed to both take your money and leave you and your data as vulnerable as a newborn. As I’ve stated on numerous occasions, the truth — presently and in the real world — resides somewhere in the middle. Let’s just let it develop for a while without the constant exposure to external variables, let it stew in its own juices, if you will.

However, a recent spate of media coverage decrying the paradigm altogether has me feeling like I woke up in an enterprise computing Bizarro World, where the discussion looks the same, but is, in fact, entirely different than anything actually going on in this universe. Thus, I feel compelled to write once again about the cloud.

A prime example ran this morning in The Register, wherein the author eviscerated Amazon, Google and the entire cloud computing movement. Entertaining? Yes. Expletive-filled? You bet. Off-point? Almost completely. Here’s why:

1. No one really believes external clouds (e.g., Amazon and Google) are ideal solutions for large enterprises to run mission-critical applications. Although must-have enterprise features like persistent block storage are being added, the real enterprise use cases are test/dev and one-off or peak-load jobs. The New York Times famously used EC2 to digitize decades worth of old newspapers, a compute-intensive job that was perfectly suited for a cloud like Amazon’s. Nowhere, however, did I see talk of the Times moving its entire operations function into the cloud. But for some good, old-fashioned batch processing or testing to make sure your app can scale across hundreds of nodes, it’s a good fit. I just don’t see any competent CIOs being persuaded to move key operations there until some of the oft-cited security and reliability issues are worked out.

Although some authorities don’t even consider them to be cloud computing, internal clouds are the immediate and mid-term solutions for enterprises looking to harness the cloud’s pros without experiencing its cons. Yes, these come in an mind-boggling variety of sizes and shapes thanks to seemingly every vendor in the vicinity (e.g., grid, fabric, etc.) trying to morph the term to fit their products, but somewhere out there is something that will fit a particular enterprise’s needs. Most of these even help to tackle the problem of managing a company’s growing number of virtual machines. An insightful piece (vendor bias not withstanding) on this topic by Cassatt CEO Bill Coleman is up on the home page now. When enterprises need to outsource, managed hosting still seems to be the preferred option.

For SMBs or folks just hosting Web applications, the cloud is a much more immediate fit (provided they find the right platform for their application). It does save them capital expenditures upfront, and it does save them operational expdenditures related to maintaining that hardware. EC2 might not be ideal for small businesses or start-ups without some serious IT know-how, but a mature App Engine, or other platforms like Mosso and GoGrid, might do the trick. Mosso customers, for instance, tout its customer support, and the company just named a chief uptime officer.

2. Energy concerns are for real — and they have little to do with altruism. Datacenter energy demand is increasing right along with the price of that energy, but availability is on the decline. Many large corporations either have reached or are on the verge of reaching the capacity of what their providers will give them. What to do: either figure out a way to maximize your in-house efficiency, or find a way to outsource some of work, or both.

Obviously, external clouds are one direct attack on the latter front. Internal clouds also address the power issue thanks to more and more power management software being sold by vendors in the space (e.g., Cassatt, Appistry, Raritan and Evergrid, among others). Even virtualization management vendors are getting into the power management game, with virtualization itself being a power saver right off the bat. And using lower-power commodity chips is icing on the cake.

Perhaps some vendors and some companies will spin their actions in this space as being “green,” but what else would you expect. But even if some are telling the truth, the reality is that, more often than not, it is the bottom line that is driving this green shift. Whatever the reason, though, no one can deny it is happening.

Long story short: I’m tired of writing about cloud computing every week (I really am), but I cannot stand to see the propagation of misconceptions without at least voicing a rational opinion in the name of clarification. Enterprise-wise, cloud computing is not ready for primetime just yet, but there are plenty of reasons that make it an attractive option, with production-ready in-house versions being a near-term reality. In the meantime, big companies will use it for testing purposes, small companies might use it for real, and the cloud providers will continue to hone their offerings.

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