Five cloud-computing questions

Does the newest buzzword portend real changes, or is it just deja vu all over again?

It seems that every decade or so, I get the opportunity to write an article on IT déjà vu. This time around, the topic is "cloud computing," which is the latest IT buzzphrase.

My first reaction to the term was confusion. The amorphous "cloud" has been used for decades to symbolize a WAN that connected clients to server-based data centers. Is cloud computing another version of network computing? Yes, but this cloud is not just any WAN; it is a synonym for the Internet. Nothing new here. The Internet has been around for over two decades.

OK, let us look at what form of computing in being provided via the cloud. In this model, all IT applications and facilities (i.e. compute, storage and network) are provided as a service rather than dedicated infrastructure. This is intended to allow any user, independent of client platform, to access IT services without knowledge or concern of their location or form. Sound familiar -- it's a service-oriented architecture (SOA)!

In addition, cloud computing incorporates almost every computing manifestation within the IT world: distributed, grid, utility, on-demand, open-source, Web services, P2P, Web 2.0 and, last but not least, software as a service.

It also accommodates thin, thick and mobile clients and allows integration of corporate, commercial and service provider cloud-accessed resources. As an example, in this model, storage is a service resource that is accessed via the cloud, not a dedicated user resource.

Cloud computing vendors will invoice their customers on a utility (such as electricity) or a subscription (such as a newspaper) basis.

It's evolutionary, but not revolutionary. As early as 1970, IBM championed a concept called "time sharing." Users shared common IT resources and applications on a mainframe computer simultaneously with other users for variable fees that were dependent upon usage and consumed resources.

Minimal capital expenditure, low barrier to entry, shared IT infrastructure as well as shared costs, outsourced operating expense, low management overhead and immediate access to a broad range of business and IT applications are all benefits of time sharing. Almost 40 years later, we are back full circle to cloud computing.

Déjà vu, but with a 21st century twist. Virtualization, autonomics, open standards, massive resource scaling, dynamic resource provisioning, mobile broadband access, the Internet, Ethernet LANs, computer-based smart clients, network-attached storage, dense low-cost RAID storage, database management systems, enterprise service bus, information management, systems/network management and security software, etc., did not exist in the age of time sharing.

Cloud computing will undoubtedly show up first in the small and midsize business and the consumer marketplaces. Where minimal cost is an issue, cloud computing will become a viable IT alternative.

The corporate environment is another matter. The major issues that brought about the demise of time sharing also plague cloud computing.

Five questions need definitive answers to satisfy buyer concerns about corporate cloud computing.

The first question is about security. What about potential unauthorized access, inappropriate use and loss of control of proprietary corporate information and applications? Who is responsible for corporate policy distribution, management and control?

The second question is about performance. Quality-of-service commitments and service-level agreements from cloud computing vendors may not meet corporate availability, legal, budgetary and insurance requirements. Who is responsible for loss of revenue/profits from a significant cloud-computing outage, high network load or insufficient bandwidth access as a rersult of a denial of service?

The third question is about management. It is exceedingly difficult to manage and administer a virtualized corporate IT environment. It may be impossible or impractical to attempt to manage the cloud. What tools exist for the buyer to monitor and manage multiple cloud-computing vendors and their products?

The fourth question is about governance and regulatory compliance. Outsourcing of any services brings into question oversight and cloud-computing vendor procedures, processes, internal tools and third-party auditor access. What vendor-supplied software tools exist for the buyer to provide for cloud-computing vendor governance and regulatory compliance?

The fifth and final question is about finance -- the classical issue of a variable vs. fixed-cost management. Chief financial officers demand budgets to be projected with accuracy, committed to as part of a financial allocation plan and managed with continual diligence and oversight. How do you control IT costs in a services and cloud-computing utility billing model, and when should a cloud-computing variable cost be converted to an internal IT fixed cost?

Cloud computing will usher in the age of the IT service-delivery provider in a similar manner to Internet communications creating the age of the Internet service provider. Every major Internet vendor, IT vendor and carrier wants to be an SDP. Their success and cloud computing's success will depend on their answers to the above five questions.

Is cloud computing just time-sharing déjà vu? Not from a 21st century technical perspective but from a corporate benefits/concerns perspective, they seem to be one and the same.

This story, "Five cloud-computing questions" was originally published by Network World.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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