High-Pressure Clouds

IT leaders are being urged to use cloud computing to lower costs in the data center. But is speed the real payoff?

In the time it takes to get a cup of coffee, any one of the hundreds of engineers and developers at mobile computing chip-maker Qualcomm Inc. can provision himself a new server -- one that's fully configured with compute, storage, networking, middleware and other resources. "You can get something provisioned within 15 minutes," says Matthew Clark, senior director of IT.

The San Diego-based company's self-service infrastructure, dubbed "AutoZone," includes all the hallmarks of a private cloud: a self-service portal with a menu of standardized services that users can choose from; a virtualized infrastructure built using highly standardized suites of hardware and software; fully automated provisioning and deprovisioning; and the ability for IT to meter and allocate costs from the division level down through to the individual department, application or user.

But don't ask Clark to call it a private cloud.

"We're getting close to a cloud, but I would call our implementation a cross-platform, automated virtualized environment," he says. His reticence is understandable because, as he points out, everyone seems to have a different definition of cloud computing. Clark's is very simple, if broad: "Cloud is efficient use of resources across your infrastructure, which can also be external services."

James Staten, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc., says Qualcomm is on the leading edge. No matter how Clark defines cloud computing, Staten says, "Qualcomm is a lot further along than most companies are."

Clark's peers are watching with great interest. Private clouds are rapidly becoming a priority for corporate IT heading into 2011. The core elements -- on-premises virtualization, standardized infrastructure and service offerings, and automated provisioning -- can deliver cost efficiencies and reduce administrative overhead. But the biggest driver by far is time to market, IT executives say. "We look at the benefit as quicker time to onboard applications, not cost savings. It's all about speed of deployment," says Norm Fjeldheim, Qualcomm's CIO.

There's another motivating factor at work as well, says Staten: potential competition from public cloud offerings, which IT's customers are increasingly using as an alternative to traditional IT-hosted systems. "There's this fear that the public cloud will make IT irrelevant," Staten says, and many IT organizations are feeling pressure to have an internal "cloud answer" for the business side as soon as possible.

With all of the hype about cloud, it's important to keep in mind that, unlike some public cloud services that promise instant gratification, private cloud is an infrastructure play that represents a long-term payback. "It's not something you drop in today and immediately see a 50% return on investment," says Mitch Daniels, technical director at integrator ManTech International Corp. "The expectations-setting really needs to be addressed upfront, especially with management."

Defining Your Cloud

Fjeldheim defines cloud as "a complete abstraction of the hardware away from the applications that run on them." What Qualcomm has done isn't a cloud, he says, because it has virtualized classes of hardware, creating virtual infrastructure silos for Windows, Linux and Solaris environments. "We can't run an application on any piece of hardware we have," he says.

Also, Qualcomm's virtual infrastructure can't yet scale to support application workloads dynamically -- something Fjeldheim sees as a key attribute of an internal, private cloud. "We don't have the ability for the virtual infrastructure to automatically provide additional infrastructure to an application that needs it, and then take it away when it doesn't," he says.

In addition to the core attributes of virtualization, standardization and automation, there's another important element in a private cloud architecture: multitenancy. Cloud-based services must be shared across all of the organization's departments and business units in order to pay off. "The economies only work when it's shared," says Staten. And that means business users must be willing to accept a limited set of standardized service offerings -- and fewer customizations.

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