Internal clouds

I recently found myself presenting at an event for one of our leading resellers, on building your cloud computing.  I found myself presenting alongside what I would consider classic on-premise vendors: Network Appliance, VM Ware and Cisco.  I was fully expecting these vendors to talk about how their products could be used by Software-as-a-Service and Platform-as-a-Service vendors could utilise their products to build cloud-based platforms to offer service to their clients.

Their approach, however, was totally unexpected to me - private clouds.  Maybe I have been working in the pure cloud-computing environment for too long but I hadn't really come across the concept of 'private' or 'internal' clouds before.  When the other vendors first started to talk about this concept I felt like someone was running their fingernails down a blackboard: on-premise flexible computing networks modeled after "public cloud" services providers such as my employer where resources can be managed from a single point and assigned to applications or services as needed.

Now Gartner too has thrown itself behind this concept, with analyst Thomas Bittman's presentation titled "The Future of Infrastructure and Operations: The Engine of Cloud Computing" at Gartner's Data Centre Conference last December.

After discussing private clouds with several vendors, analysts and press at the recent Software and Information Industry Association OnDemand pre-conference I can now see the place that this flexible on-premise model has compared with the way organisations have done things in the past.  My exception is to the use of the world cloud, I think it deminishes the advantages that outsourcing your infrastructure to a cloud vendor provides. Consider the three alternatives to managing your email infrastructure (a topic close to home for me):

  1. traditional on-premise deployment
  2. a private cloud deployment
  3. a public cloud service

With a traditional on-premise deployment you will have several products from different vendors each with their own administration and reporting platforms.  Policy will need to be fragmented into several different rule sets for each platform.  Many of these products will have been deployed in appliance form factors.  These platforms will become end-of-life every 3 - 5 years and need replacing and migrating.  Each platform requires constant patching and updating.

Now consider a private cloud deployment - you still have several different products from different vendors, but now you have additional layers of virtual machine management.  During the VM Ware presentation I saw, mention was made of six additional management platforms required to fully manage the new virtualised environment (six!).  So now you still have all of the fragmented administrative and reporting burdens from traditional on-premise deployment with even more administration and reporting - you've swapped hardware complexity for software complexity.  An additional problem is caused by the fact that many of the appliances used are not yet available as virtual appliances, my old employer Proofpoint being one of the exceptions. Every 3 - 5 years you'll still need to replace the hardware that the virtual platforms are running on, all of the platforms and software will still need constant patching and upgrading.

With a public cloud deployment the infrastructure is totally abstracted away from the organisation, who are now free to target IT resources where they can add the most value to the business rather than just keeping the lights on.  Multiple administrative and reporting interfaces are now replaced with a single, business focused administative interface.  There is no longer any hardware or software to replace, upgrade, migrate or patch.

Building a cloud computing platform is not trivial, it took my company over three years to perfect the distribued parallel grid computing environment that allows a secure, scalable and resilient multi-tenant environment to handle email risk and compliance management.  We had to design everything from a zero-day malware detection capability to a specialist information-centric distribued filing system.

Promising a more flexible approach to managing IT in your business by adding additional layers of complication to an already complicated infrastructure keeps lots of IT staff in employment - a goal many IT staff are happy to buy into in these troubled economic times - but it is still distracting the business away from their core business function.

'Real cloud computing', or public clouds reduce costs, reduce complexity and reduce infrastructure immediately.  Private clouds may well reduce costs over the long term, but they increase complexity and swap one kind of infrastructure (hardware) for another (virtualised) - I just really wish they had chosen a different term than cloud.

It is true that not every service is ready to go to the public cloud, but by totally outsourcing the ones you can now you free up internal resources and budget to concentrate on developing your "internal cloud" projects using the technologies discussed by the other vendors.

Maybe it is just me, but at the partner presentation I took quite a contary view from the other vendors all happily talking about private clouds, instead contrasting life with a public cloud service compared with an on-premise cloud.  As a result we were the only vendor to receive across-the-board top marks on the feedback forms - maybe IT departments aren't as easily swayed by marketing as we think?