Saturday, October 31, 2009

De-Mystifying the "Cloud"

Cloud Computing is drawing attention from almost all the CIO's. Is it another fad or is the Cloud "real." Since the field is evolving, let us look at some of the details here.

In general Cloud Computing allows users and organizations to use computing power on demand just like water or electricity from the grid. Users can request computing power, storage, enterprise applications or even databases from such Cloud services providers. These Cloud Services providers will act as data centers, except they are no longer privately owned by each company. I simpler analogy would be single family home v/s a condominium with multiple tenants who share the common facilities like the hallway, elevator, pool and the club house. The users of Cloud pay only for the computing or storage they use. Thus, companies no longer need to create their own data centers thus do not need to buy servers and massive storage arrays.

Cloud Computing is not really something obscure, a lot of us are actually using it in daily lives perhaps not realizing that. For instance, Gmail, Twitter, Skype and YouTube are all built on the Cloud Computing technology. All these collaborative applications are delivering services to PC's and mobile devices. The users do not have to worry about the "location" of these service providing computers and storage. Hence, a key concept of Cloud Computing is Virtualization. Virtualization allows a single powerful computer to function as multiple virtual servers running a diverse range of operating systems and different applications. This is the key concept as physical computers are not dedicated to single or a group of related users, say from a small company.

Are all organizations ready to embrace the public Cloud? There is also a concept of Internal Cloud where the Cloud infrastructure sits inside the corporate firewall. The BigBlue (IBM) is a promoter of Internal Cloud or Private Clouds. In this approach, typically a large company would create an internal cloud to meet the diverse software application needs of its user base. No single server or SAN is dedicated to a unique application and user groups or departments use computing resources on demand from this internal cloud.

If you are an individual user or a small to mid-sized company, how can you get a first hand feel of the Cloud Computing. You can test drive services like Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud or EC2. Developers can buy computing power and storage as they need it. IBM provides Cloudburst as a hardware and software package to allow organizations to build their private cloud. In others words it is a "cloud in a box" approach. Companies often invest in storage space for data backup. EMC provides Decho or digital echo to backup data-storage cloud. Microsoft cloud play is called
Azure and is comparable to Amazon's EC2.

Cloud Computing is not an altogether new IT concept. We have known SaaS or Software as a Service, Grid computing, remote hosting (webservers, ftp sites etc) and different kinds of utility computing. "Cloud computing is really a culmination of many technologies such as grid computing, utility computing, SOA, Web 2.0, and other technologies." While a precise definition is still being debated, Open Cloud Manifesto was signed in 2009 by companies like IBM, EMC, Boeing etc. The goal is to put the CIO's and IT leaders at ease to make it easier for end customers and developers to plan transition to cloud services.

The origin of the term Cloud Computing is from the metaphor that computer architects often create graphic designs to show flow of information. When the source of information in such diagrams, is external or unknown, often cloud is used to depict that. Will the Cloud Computing be disruptive technology? It seems to be evolving that way. Today Google Docs seems to be going after Microsoft Office, is giving Larry Ellison's Oracle CRM a run for money. Likewise, is competing with EMC's remote storage capability and Amazon EC2 may hit the sales of Intel servers for private data centers.

Is Cloud Computing free of any silver bullets? On Aug 31, Google's GMail server was down for a while, it seemed to bring up the question of risks associated with over indulgence in the Cloud computing model. Let's us see how it plays out over the next few months and as we get into 2010!

[ This blog posting was inspired by the Wall Street Journal Article titled How Well Do You Know... the Cloud?]

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