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Seeking clarity in the clouds

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After you wade through the confusion that vendors have created, you'll find there are advantages to both public and private cloud offerings.

By Tony Asaro

I recently conducted a seminar in Seattle for a number of IT professionals and when I mentioned the "cloud" there was a wave of negative reaction. They hated the term and thought that it was just a lot of hyperbole. When our industry latches onto buzzwords like "cloud" and gives them so much airplay, there's invariably a backlash from the user community. It creates confusion and often winds up being counterproductive to vendors' marketing efforts.

Adding to the confusion is that more than one type of IT cloud exists. There are application clouds, like SalesForce.com and Google Apps. These online applications are often referred to as software as a service (SaaS), but the "application cloud" moniker is beginning to stick. According to research firm IDC, application clouds already represent an $8.5 billion market, which impacts on-premises IT infrastructures. Applications that would otherwise live within your company's four walls are instead accessed over the cloud, and so the servers, network, storage, power, cooling and floor space that would have been required on your shop floor are now provided by the application vendor.

There are also pure IT public clouds that provide compute resources and/or storage capacity, with new businesses like Dropbox and Twitter leveraging these

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services. We can expect IT professionals to use public IT cloud services as a supplement to existing on-premises IT infrastructure. For example, a high-tech startup I just spoke with is using both Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) and Simple Storage Service (S3) for test and development vs. building an in-house lab. Public IT clouds will be used for research, testing, lower tier applications, secondary copies of data, backup, archive storage and so on.

Public IT clouds won't replace brick-and-mortar IT within the foreseeable future. I've spoken to more than 200 IT professionals over the last 12 months and none of them has a serious initiative to use public IT clouds. But a shift is coming with the availability of more products and services that enable IT professionals to easily, cost effectively and securely use public IT cloud services.

Private IT clouds is another category that some people believe is just a new name for the same stuff we already have in the data center. I disagree. Regardless of what we call this new "thing" -- a true IT utility or private IT cloud -- it isn't synonymous with what we have today in the data center, although many of the ingredients are the same.

The IT professionals I've spoken to about private IT clouds see it as the realization of IT as a utility within their own companies. It uses physical IT infrastructure for greater economies of scale, which is what a utility is all about.

We've been talking about turning IT into a service utility for decades, so what's changed in that time? The biggest thing has been server virtualization, which creates an n-to-1 virtual server-to-physical server ratio. Virtual LANs (VLANs) have done the same thing for networking. Additionally, some storage systems let you create virtual storage systems in a similar fashion. We have advanced IT technology to enable multi-tenancy and create logical systems within physical ones. The virtualization of IT infrastructure is relatively new and essential to enabling private IT clouds.

The critical pieces still missing for private IT clouds are the management, policy-based controls, reporting, analysis and "billing" systems for the entire IT ecosystem holistically. This is what will elevate private IT clouds from being a disparate set of virtual and physical infrastructure solutions to the new way we manage our data centers. But this is the hardest part to build because it requires core competencies that the infrastructure vendors don't have. Additionally, you need to work with a wide range of products and vendors that may or may not cooperate.

Both public and private IT clouds are real and changing the landscape, but nothing is binary. We don't do things one way and then switch to another way overnight. It takes years, with progress occurring in steps. There are points of acceleration and, depending on the ease of making the shift, the clarity of the value proposition and the support of the ecosystem, the time it takes to complete the transition can vary considerably. And as markets emerge, no one can predict how it will all play out.

So what's an IT professional to do? Do what you always do when faced with something new and emerging. The early adopters will lead the way and some of them will make great choices while others make mistakes. Keep reading, researching and analyzing. You might want to even dip your toe in the waters if the cost and risk is minimal. Set your cynicism aside and try to understand how IT clouds can impact your environment for the short term while you continue to evaluate the long-term implications.

BIO: Tony Asaro is senior analyst and founder of Voices of IT.

This was first published in April 2010

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