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June 1, 2009

Cloudy skies?

Jason Stamper looks beyond the ‘cloud computing’ hype to ask what it really is, and just as crucially, what it is not.

By Jason Stamper

The trouble with new paradigms in IT is usually the same: finding a consensus on what the new term really means. Vendors jump on the bandwagon as fast as they can get their marketing ready, giving rise to numerous definitions of the term as they tweak it to suit their own solutions and services. Cloud computing is no exception. So what on earth is cloud computing?

It doesn’t seem so very long ago that Software as a Service (SaaS) emerged as a concept, promising the delivery of enterprise applications in a hosted fashion over the Internet. and its ebullient founder and CEO Mark Benioff surely did more than anyone to evangelise the concept, first with hosted CRM applications and today with a platform on which almost any type of application can be found — and all of course delivered as a hosted application that saves users worrying about hardware and patches.

But that wasn’t the first time that applications had been delivered in a hosted fashion: in the nineties the trend was being advocated by Application Service Providers (ASPs), who acted much like but perhaps struck the market a little too early, and lacked the resources and wherewithal to become serious applications players in their own right.

More recently than SaaS though, the industry was deluged with talk of Web 2.0: the second coming of the Internet. A trend that was a little hard to clearly separate from Web 1.0, the Web 2.0 evangelists talked about the importance of end user involvement, rich user interfaces and more sophisticated web-based applications.

Google, Yahoo and even online retailer Amazon led the charge, with more impressive web-based capabilities. They also made web services available so anyone with the right skills could create a ‘mashup’ application that usually remained hosted on Google, Yahoo or Amazon’s web platforms somewhere. At some point — and it seems no one really knows exactly when it was — people started describing this new ecosystem of relatively open, accessible applications and other hosted data sources as ‘cloud computing’.

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Defining cloud computing

So what exactly is cloud computing? Wikipedia offers this definition: “Cloud computing means Internet (‘Cloud’) based development and use of computer technology (‘Computing’). It is a style of computing where IT-related capabilities are provided ‘as a service’, allowing users to access technology-enabled services ‘in the cloud’ without knowledge of, expertise with, or control over the technology infrastructure that supports them.”

If you feel that the term doesn’t sound particularly different from some of the trends that preceded it — SaaS, utility computing, grid computing, on-demand computing and so on — you would not be alone. But that is not to say that it should be treated with so much scepticism that it is ignored altogether.

As William Fellows, principal analyst at The 451 Group wrote in a recent report on cloud computing, “Cloud is the name for a real trend (utility computing 2.0), as well as an accompanying bandwagon. It’s the ‘baby and bathwater’ principle: We believe that there are good reasons not to dismiss the trend itself, despite the hype.”

The 451 Group defines cloud computing as IT as a service — as opposed to Software as a Service (SaaS): “The cloud is IT, presented as a service to the user, delivered by virtualised resources that are independent of location,” said Fellows.

It’s thought that people started using the term ‘cloud computing’ around early 2007, but the hype of which Fellows talks really gathered a head of steam in 2008. It’s being driven mostly by companies like Amazon, Google, and Yahoo, as well as more traditional vendors including IBM, HP, Intel , Sun (recently bought by Oracle) and Microsoft.

So is it a ‘real’ concept or more of the same old marketing spiel? Annrai O’Toole was CEO of Cape Clear, an enterprise service bus (ESB) company that optimised its integration platform to enable what it called ‘integration on demand’. It was recently acquired by Workday, a business applications on demand vendor, where O’Toole is now VP of integration. What does he make of the term ‘cloud computing’? “At first I was sceptical,” he told CBR when we caught up with him recently.  “But then I heard Dana Gardner [president and principal analyst at Interarbor Solutions] give his whole shtick on cloud computing and I bought it. I definitely buy it now.”

According to O’Toole, the concept is becoming more clearly defined as time passes, and the distinction between cloud computing and its precursors like SaaS and on-demand computing is becoming more clear. While SaaS was software as a service, and on-demand computing from the likes of IBM was really processing on-demand, cloud computing is wider-reaching: it is IT as a service. It could include not just applications but processing power, storage, connectivity, collaboration, extensibility, configurability, application development tools and so on.

O’Toole draws another distinction between SaaS and cloud computing: “There is a subtle but important difference for CIOs,” he says. “This software is far more configurable. SaaS was customisable, but there is configurability and extensibility with cloud computing that was simply not possible with earlier generations of SaaS.”

O’Toole says that a fundamental requirement of cloud computing is some sort of brokering in ‘the cloud’. “Take Amazon,” he says. “It opened up its platform so retailers could plug into it. It enabled people to customise the platform, thanks to modular components. Applications or modules can be enhanced, customised, configured — all plugged into the Amazon EC2 or S3 platforms. SaaS is just an application on the end of a URL: you can’t plug anything in to it.”

Not everyone is convinced that cloud computing is markedly different from its precursors. Butler Group research director Tim Jennings wrote in a recent opinion piece: “I believe that the leap forward to cloud computing is not as large as it may seem at first sight. For large organisations today the data centre is often located at a remote site, accessed over network connections; it is also becoming highly virtualised, breaking down the direct relationship between particular applications, servers, and storage.”

Same difference

“There is relatively little difference between this and the cloud computing model,” Jennings said, “and I believe we will see a blending of the two models, as organisations both develop their own internal cloud infrastructures, and supplement existing capacity with external cloud services.”

Increasingly, the vendors are talking about the importance of interoperability between cloud computing and services oriented architecture (SOA). IBM, for instance, sees a tight link between SOA, and the potential to run at least some services in the cloud.

To this end the company announced two new products in April that allow customers to extend their investments in SOA into a cloud services environment. The new offerings enable clients to create application environments that can be deployed and managed in a ‘private cloud’ – a cloud that adopts many of the aspects of cloud computing but is still hosted within a firm’s own infrastructure.

The IBM WebSphere CloudBurst Appliance is a new hardware appliance that provides access to software virtual images and patterns that can be used as is, or customised, and then securely deployed, managed and maintained in a private cloud.

Secondly, IBM WebSphere Application Server Hypervisor Edition is a version of IBM WebSphere Application Server software optimised to run in virtualised hardware server environments such as VMware, and it comes preloaded in WebSphere Cloudburst.

“Like SOA, cloud computing is about re-use, service flexibility and standardisation of processes,” said Tom Rosamilia, general manager of application and integration middleware at IBM. “Through its vast portfolio of hardware, software and services, IBM is committed to delivering enterprise customers business agility through greater IT flexibility and smart economics.”

IBM said with its latest announcements around cloud computing, it is, “Empowering clients to consolidate and manage existing resources to realise the economic and technological advantages of increasingly popular private clouds. A primary benefit to customers who already have a SOA foundation is that cloud computing enables them to now reuse and share applications.”

Another area where cloud computing is merging with an established technology is in the business process management (BPM) space. BPM firm Cordys recently launched a new cloud computing platform called the Cordys Enterprise Cloud Orchestration System, or ECOSystem.

Cordys is anticipating a need for a software infrastructure that can be used to orchestrate the management of the many general-purpose and specialised applications and services that will eventually be hosted in private and public clouds.

In fact, Cordys is making it clear that its ECOSystem is not BPM on-demand or process on-demand, but a Platform-as-a-Service, on which companies can develop, integrate, host and manage their business applications in the cloud.

Cordys founder and executive chairman Jan Baan told CBR, It took us six months to engineer the project — to turn the Business Operations Platform into a Software-as-a-Service deployment framework, or Platform-as-a-Service if you like.

IT shops can build new applications that will run on the platform or deploy their own applications onto the ECOSystem. “Just as VMware has launched its vCompute capability for infrastructure, Cordys has launched the ECOSystem for applications,” said Jon Pyke, chief strategy officer at Cordys.

It seems that far from being a pool of compute resources hosted offsite by cloud services providers, for many enterprises cloud computing will be far closer to home and involve a blend of SOA, BPM and other existing technologies to deliver services to users in a more flexible and efficient manner.

CBR Opinion

There is not yet a consensus on exactly what cloud computing is. The easiest way to think of it is as ‘IT as a service’. Whether in a public cloud provided by a hosting provider, or a private cloud hosted in your own infrastructure, cloud computing is as William Fellows says, “IT, presented as a service to the user, delivered by virtualised resources that are independent of location.”

More and more IT vendors are working out what their strategy should be to embrace cloud computing. As for enterprises, many are investigating the concept. As is so often the case, it is unlikely cloud computing will replace traditional IT, just as SaaS has failed to eradicate client-server applications. But as the vendors build out their cloud computing capabilities, enterprises would be shrewd to keep an eye on developments. Bewildering, vacuous or revolutionary, cloud computing today can perhaps best be summed up by this comment from analyst firm Gartner Group: “The very confusion and contradiction that surrounds the term ‘cloud computing’ signifies its potential to change the status quo in the IT market.”




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