Bandwidth bottlenecks loom large in the cloud

Sending apps and storage off-site might cause problems IT hasn't considered.

InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) CIO Tom Conophy has no reservations when it comes to the cloud.

The hospitality giant, which manages, franchises or leases 4,500 hotels in 100 countries, has been able to improve the customer experience and reduce costs by moving storage and in-house applications for mobile phones to multiple data centers in the cloud. It's been such a success overall that the team is now rebuilding its room-reservations system, which processes more than 345 million transactions daily, for a move to the cloud.

But Conophy says all will be for naught if the IHG team doesn't focus squarely on one often-overlooked area: bandwidth.

"If your employees and your users can't access data fast enough, then the cloud will be nothing more than a pipe dream," Conophy says. In IHG's case, that meant re-architecting the network to distribute databases so data is quickly reachable and data centers remain in sync.

With all the talk about cloud, it can be easy to forget that there are risks that go beyond security. Users, by now accustomed to LAN-like speed and quality, could rebel if they experience performance or latency issues. Many of today's applications are interdependent and if they have to communicate across long distances, such as data center to data center, then slowdowns or even outages are possible. Also, if storage and backups suffer too many hops, they could stall out and fail.

Despite these potentially catastrophic outcomes, many businesses do not include bandwidth considerations in their cloud strategies, according to Theresa Lanowitz, founder of independent analyst firm Voke, Inc. in Portland, Ore.

Testing cloud apps is key

"Most companies are testing their infrastructure in a silo, not in an integrated environment," she says. Therefore, they have no way of making sure applications, backups and storage will meet a defined quality of service, she adds.

Internet pipes are filled with diverse traffic, including streaming video and audio, which could negatively impact, say, a database's performance. Also, many applications haven't been cloud-hardened -- meaning the code's not been tightened up to reduce the back-and-forth, among other steps -- and they may start to break down when off the LAN.

Lanowitz recommends using emulation tools -- such as those from Spirent Communications and Ixia -- to discover potential bandwidth bottlenecks before permanently putting applications and data into the cloud. A hospitality company like IHG could emulate typical peak scenarios such as morning checkout through the cloud-based application.

"It's no longer about delivering an application that is great; it's about whether that application can survive in the wild. You have to examine the maximum use the cloud-based application and network will sustain," Lanowitz says.

Get the right people involved

Jim Frey, managing research director at consultancy Enterprise Management Associates, agrees with Lanowitz. Complicating matters, his research has shown, is that IT groups don't always have the right people responsible for predicting and resolving bandwidth bottlenecks. Often, the people who know most about the network and can take steps to resolve problems before they occur aren't involved with cloud storage and applications.

Frey's February 2011 report "Network Management and the Responsible, Virtualized Cloud" found that 62% of the 151 IT professionals surveyed are using some form of cloud services. A majority of the total -- 66% -- rely on an in-house cloud or virtualization support team for service performance and quality monitoring and assurance. Other major players in cloud oversight in many shops work in storage or data management, data center/server operations and security.

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