Cloud interoperability: Problems and best practices

As more applications find their way to the cloud, data portability and other issues are coming to the fore.

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Upcoming cloud standards

What's needed to address these many concerns is a cloud standard similar to the popular TCP/IP standard for networking. It would most likely be an API that's implemented in all cloud products and services and promotes transparent interoperability. But, Forrester analyst James Staten says he believes that a common cloud API is in the future. He sees the push for standards as too far ahead of where the market is: "There is no compelling reason to comply; not enough enterprise users have established cloud computing initiatives."

Still, there are moves afoot to help solidify standards. The Storage Networking Industry Association has completed a standard aimed at making it easier for enterprises to move data around various clouds. SNIA expects implementations of the standard to begin in the second half of this year.

Some cloud vendors are pushing their own APIs as an open standard. VMware has submitted its vCloud API to the Distributed Management Task Force (DMTF) for ratification as an open standard, and Red Hat has submitted its Deltacloud platform to the DMTF as well. VMware's vCloud is being used in VMware-based private clouds and in its partners' vCloud Express public clouds, providing users with some cloud interoperability, but at the expense of almost total lock-in.

The only real cloud standard to date is OVF (Open Virtualization Format). It, however, relates only to the packaging of virtual machines for facilitating their mobility.

Because interoperability standards between cloud platforms are not yet in place, what should a prospective cloud adopter do? For starters, do not wait for interoperability standards to be ratified because then you'll miss out on any benefits of cloud computing. In an environment of tremendous change where the potential benefits could be large, a better decision is to study up and make a choice.

Consultants say that it's best to develop a strategy around flexible application architectures so that you are not locked into any one particular offering, by following these two steps:

Make sure the application and its supporting components do not rely on the operating system and the infrastructure. That is, use mature fourth-generation languages such as Cognos, Focus, Clipper and others, or interpretive systems such as Java, to improve application portability.

Find a management platform for your applications that can support applications in whatever environment you are likely to run them in. Even if you have to port the applications, you can continue to manage them with an established management framework that your IT team already understands how to use.

Some users have indicated that they will use a best-of-breed strategy for selecting cloud technology and cloud providers. That is, they plan to mix-and-match the best-in-class cloud vendors to ensure that they are getting all of the innovation that is being brought to the market. But while mixing and matching can work fine for on-premises software, there can be significant integration challenges and other issues when this approach is applied to cloud computing.

For one, you will have to pay high operational costs to manage this kind of deployment strategy, Golden says. You are likely to end up with multiple management tools, a group of operations people per tool set and the need to administer multiple contracts. Without standards in place, the overhead with the best-of-breed approach may be way too high.

Hybrid-specific cloud issues

Many companies are going with a hybrid approach of both public and private cloud. These shops in particular need to be able to move applications and data seamlessly among their clouds. So it's not just a one-way, or one-time, move.

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