What is infrastructure as a service (IaaS)?

What is IaaS? It seems like a simple, innocuous question. However, as with most technical topics, things are never as they appear. IaaS is no different. To illustrate this, I reached out to four IBM cloud leaders and posed that simple question. What I got back were answers heavily influenced by their world view—where they came from and where they are today.

First I asked Distinguished Engineer (DE) Christopher Ferris, CTO for Cloud Interoperability in IBM Software Group (SWG).  Chris has responsibility for IBM engagements in cloud-related standards and open source, and is a long-time participant in standards bodies.  Unsurprisingly, he went with a standards-based definition:

“Given that I collaborated on behalf of IBM with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and others in the open standards community to help NIST shape their formal definition of cloud, I’ll let what has become the generally accepted definition of IaaS, from a standards perspective, speak for itself.”

Infrastructure as a ServiceHere’s how NIST defines IaaS:

Infrastructure as a service (IaaS). The capability provided to the consumer is to provision processing, storage, networks and other fundamental computing resources where the consumer is able to deploy and run arbitrary software, which can include operating systems and applications. The consumer does not manage or control the underlying cloud infrastructure but has control over operating systems, storage and deployed applications; and possibly limited control of select networking components (e.g., host firewalls).”

(Related: How does cloud computing work?)

Next, I asked another Distinguished Engineer, Matt Hogstrom. As Chief Technical Officer (CTO) for Software Defined Environments (SDE) in Systems and Technology Group (STG), Matt has responsibility for defining the SDE strategy covering IBM hardware and systems software.  Prior to his current job, Matt played a significant role in the development of the IBM solution for automated application delivery on an IBM expert integrated system, IBM PureApplication System.  Rooted in his experience sitting on both sides of the IaaS application programming interface (API) boundary (consuming in PureApplication System, exposing in SDE), Matt’s definition is very practical:

 “Infrastructure as a service is the ability to programmatically create, manage and consume infrastructure elements which include images, storage volumes, network and compute resources.”

Third, I asked yet another Distinguished Engineer, Mac Devine.  As CTO for Cloud Services in Global Technology Services (GTS), Mac is responsible for the technical direction of IBM public cloud services.  Fittingly, his answer is heavily influenced by the public cloud characteristics of paying for what you need, when you need it:

“Infrastructure as a service means that you are obtaining cloud infrastructure (i.e. servers, storage and networking) in an on-demand, elastic fashion and in a pay-as-you-go model.”

Finally, I asked Nathan Day, Chief Scientist at one of IBM’s latest acquisitions, SoftLayer.  As Chief Scientist, Nathan is responsible for managing and overseeing the product portfolio.  SoftLayer is a service provider that prides itself on “One platform. Endless possibilities. Virtual or bare metal. Public or private. All deployed in real time.” and Nathan’s answer reflects his focus on automating those infrastructure building blocks and making them available as a service:

“Infrastructure as a service is providing raw materials (compute, storage, network) to users on-demand so that they can execute their workloads in a flexible, scalable environment without the overhead of obtaining and operating physical gear.”

Of course, I cannot end this post without sharing my answer to the question.  Having spent a significant amount of time the last two years educating teams across IBM on cloud, infrastructure as a service and OpenStack, my answer is a simple statement illustrating the capabilities:

“Infrastructure as a service is the ability to programmatically do all those things that historically took a call to someone in the data center.”

As you can see above, answers to “What is IaaS?” vary widely, but all share the common theme of programmatic access to the basic building blocks of IT: compute, storage and networking.

What is your answer?  Comment below or let me know on Twitter @mjfork.

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