Is there value in cloud computing?

Cloud computing and its impact on the future of architecture

Cloud computing is at an early stage of development, with a diverse group of providers delivering an array of services from full-blown cloud-based applications to storage services to spam filtering. Learn what cloud computing is and how it could affect the future of architecture.

S. E. Slack (sally@sslack.com), Author and business transformation consultant, Freelance writer

author photoS.E. Slack is a writer and author with more than 10 technology books to her credit. She resides in Colorado with her family. Her latest title on the shelves is PowerPoint 2007 Graphics and Animations Made Easy (McGraw-Hill, 2008).



31 March 2009

Another computing trend is afoot. In and of itself, that's not surprising: Those who love technology are continually attempting to better themselves and stay ahead of the brainiac in the next cubicle by coming up with smarter, savvier ways to implement technology. In some ways, it's like a chess game that will never quite end in check mate, although the players are continually seeking that final move to crush the competition.

But the trend itself might be news to some: It's cloud computing, a process in which Internet users access shared, third-party computing resources located in a massive, almost endless network of interconnected servers. By using this cloud of resources, businesses of all sizes can reduce information technology (IT) costs, manage data-storage needs more effectively, and improve overall flexibility. With the world's economy dropping faster than a speeding cheetah on the hunt for dinner, it makes sense that cloud computing has surfaced in the last 12 to 18 months as one of the most meaningful innovations in technology.

Sorting through the fluff of cloud computing

The economics of IT are changing rapidly, and large enterprises in particular are searching for new ways to secure resources at lower costs to maintain business viability. When entire countries like Iceland are falling apart at the economic seams, it's easy to see how cloud computing could quickly find solid footing in almost any organization. Storage costs shared across millions of users; reliable, quality user experiences; and strong security are luring more and more organizations, and governments, into the clouds.

As I was doing research for this article, I desperately sought at least two solid resources that offered the same definition of cloud computing so that I could offer you a reliable, easy-to-understand explanation. Not surprisingly for a relatively new concept, I suppose, I couldn't find them. Every "official" definition I stumbled upon had a different view of the concept, and even the people whom the rest of us look to set the standards and definitions don't really explain it the same way.

Tim O'Reilley of O'Reilley Media, probably the person most associated with the term Web 2.0, says, "I think it's one of the foundations of Web 2.0. Everything that we think of as a computer today is really just a device that connects to the big computer we're all collectively building. Cloud computing is a network of networks. [It's] a great way to think about how we will be delivering computing systems in the future."

Dan Farber of CNET gives a few more specifics: "It's the notion that you can use the Internet—the cloud—to store a lot of data and applications and other things." In Farber's view, there are three basic computing platforms today: the desktop, mobile applications, and the cloud.

Over at Google, Kevin Marks offers probably the most visual explanation: "The idea of cloud computing comes from the early days of the Internet, where we drew the network as a cloud. We didn't care where the messages went—they came in one side and out the other, and we didn't have to worry about the network [because] the cloud hid it from us. [It's] a 'cloud' around [network] buckets."

Dissect these types of pie-in-the-sky (pardon the almost-pun) definitions, and you eventually come to the conclusion that cloud computing basically consists of computing activities that take place on a remote server somewhere. You use the Internet for pretty much everything, and your laptop or desktop computer becomes simply a conduit to the Internet and all the activities you want to perform.


The cloud's impact

Eventually, according to CNET's Farber, we'll be serving up data, applications, and the writing of those applications directly in the cloud. In fact, the cloud will become so commonplace that it will be like serving up electricity: You use it, and you know it's there, but you don't think twice about how it got there or how it works. IT pros will sleep better at night knowing that their servers will never go down, operations people will actually go on vacation without pagers, and users will have access to anything and everything they could possibly need.

All right—enough about what the cloud is or might be or could be. If you buy into the general concept of "network of networks in the sky," then you can start to see how cloud computing could affect all aspects of IT architecture. Who needs application architecture, for example, when you can just hop onto a cloud and use it to develop and manage your applications?

Theoretically, lots of jobs could go away. Great news in this world economy, right? But think about it: With cloud computing, the IT department only needs to manage those pesky desktops and laptops. Maybe a few peripherals would come into play, too. The need for servers, however, could disappear. Who needs 'em on site when you've got a gazillion of them in the sky? Just plug into the cloud as needed.

IBM and Amazon Web Services

IBM and AWS are teaming up to provide access to IBM middleware in a virtual computing environment. The Amazon EC2 experience lets you evaluate and use software without having to install it on your own system. You can adjust capacity almost instantly, building enterprise-ready applications in a reliable, high-performance environment where you pay only for the time and capacity you use. Our middleware offerings on EC2 include:

  • DB2 Express-C 9.5
  • Informix Dynamic Server Developer Edition 11.5
  • WebSphere® Portal Server and Lotus Web Content Management Standard Edition
  • WebSphere sMash

This is product-level code, with all features and options enabled. Get more information and download the Amazon Machine Images for these products on the developerWorks Amazon EC2 cloud computing page.

For more cloud computing resources, see the Cloud computing space on developerWorks.

Even large enterprises with plenty of need for management of physical IT infrastructures can benefit from cloud computing, though. Data storage is probably the biggest benefit for these types of companies: It can be managed almost endlessly in a cloud architecture, with costs often far below those of traditional, on-site storage options. This benefit is one that a lot of organizations are starting to look into seriously. Here's an example: Amazon Web Services (AWS)—yes, that Amazon—offers Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3), a cloud storage architecture. The offering became available in July 2006. Less than a year later, the service was storing 800 million objects for clients. By January 2008, it was storing 14 billion objects for clients. It's paltry fee of US$0.15 per gigabyte per month of storage used gave businesses plenty of cold, hard reasons to go with the cloud for storage needs.

Recognizing a good thing, Amazon quickly expanded into three additional offerings: Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2), Amazon Simple Queue Service (Amazon SQS), and Amazon SimpleDB. Its four core services form AWS, a plug-and-play Internet cloud offering with storage, computer processing, message queuing, and a database-management system. More than 370,000 developers are now using Amazon's applications and capacity, eliminating on-site software and servers.

Following the leader

Pretty much every big name in the business is looking to cash in on cloud computing and follow Amazon's lead. Microsoft™, for instance, is offering a cloud computing operating system through the Windows™ Azure™ Services Platform so that developers can host, scale, and manage Web applications using Microsoft data centers through the Internet.

Sun Microsystems is hopping onto the cloud, as well. It is expected to offer developers the ability to purchase cloud services using a credit card. This, according to Sun, will allow developers to skip IT procurement procedures and bypass building computing infrastructures when they just want to get things done. It's also an attempt to use cloud computing as an open source code option, because Sun product codes such as MySQL will be available for fast and easy download without corporate delays.

Some applications, frankly, just work better in the cloud. That's one more reason organizations are looking at how cloud computing can help lower costs and increase productivity. Sun Microsystems, for instance, created cloud-based Blender to help users create sophisticated three-dimensional content. In a cloud, creating that kind of content takes just minutes. On a traditional desktop, it takes hours.

From a purely consumer perspective, you can easily see how cloud computing could take off. According to The Pew Internet & American Life Project, nearly 70 percent of Americans who go online use Web mail services like Gmail, store data (such as personal pictures or videos) online, or use Web-based applications such as word processing or spreadsheet programs. Why? Convenience. Instant and constant access from any Web-connected device gives them the ability to move freely through their day. If that many people are comfortable using personal online resources like that, it's an easy leap to using them at work. There's no longer a fear of the unknown like there was when the Internet appeared in the early 1990s. People are used to it and expect it to be part of their lives.


The Blue Cloud

IBM recognized the value of cloud computing several years ago, when the concept was in the "Wouldn't it be cool if . . . ?" stages. The result is IBM® Blue Cloud™, which was introduced to enterprise IT during the first half of 2008. Blue Cloud uses IBM BladeCenter® servers, a Linux® operating system, Xen-based virtualization, and IBM's own Tivoli® management software. In a nutshell, Blue Cloud is a series of cloud computing offerings based on open standards and open source software that helps enterprises deliver Web 2.0 capabilities such as mashups, open collaboration, social networking, and mobile commerce.

There are two key benefits to IBM Blue Cloud, at least from my perspective. First, the use of Tivoli in the cloud helps enterprises reduce costs and save energy. For example, it reduces the manual steps involved in data management and increases data center automation. By dynamically provisioning and allocating resources to better manage workload fluctuations, IT resources run at more consistent levels. And Tivoli has the ability to manage power consumption by switching servers to standby mode when not in use and instantly restoring them when needed.

Second, rather than stop at the general idea of "network of networks," Blue Cloud offers a twist: It lets your IT services architecture mimic service providers’ basic set-ups. So you gain the ability to integrate your internal services with those of your partners, customers, suppliers, vendors, and providers.

One of the most interesting things to me about Blue Cloud—other than the basic cloud concept, of course—is the audiences IBM appears to be targeting. It has struck deals with a couple of governments (Vietnam, for instance) and is also targeting school systems in Qatar, Japan, and sub-Saharan Africa. The Qatar Cloud Computing Initiative is the first cloud platform in the Middle East, and IBM's Cloud Computing Center is being used as an incubator for an alliance of universities in Africa working on the development of applications involving the Hadoop programming model. Although other major players in the clouds are targeting the business world, IBM may have quietly discovered a profitable niche of its own.


Conclusion

In the long run, I do see value in cloud computing. If economic woes continue to plague the world as they have in the past few years, cloud computing is poised to make a real impact on businesses of all sizes. It gives smaller businesses a chance to play on a more level playing field with the big boys, and it helps the big boys cut costs and trim technology needs to compete on a more personal level with customers.

Those who dismiss it as "just another trend" are likely to miss out on the opportunities that cloud computing provides for organizations of all sizes. Take a look back at Microsoft in the early 1990s to see how they initially missed the boat with the Internet. A cousin of mine is one of the original Microsoft millionaires: He lived and breathed Microsoft during its early years. I'll never forget how, in 1993, he calmly told me that the Internet would "never" take off. "What would you use it for?" he asked me. Marc Andreesen, of course, answered that question with a resounding "Everything!" and created Netscape, introducing the Web to millions and launching the Internet IPO boom on Wall Street in the late 1990s. Microsoft ate a lot of crow with that one and played a lot of catchup before it captured the Internet lead with Windows Internet Explorer®.

The question isn't really "What can cloud computing do for me?" so much as it is "How the heck am I going to manage the use of cloud computing in my organization?" If you're not asking that yet, you should be.

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