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Cloud computing vendors converge on standard definition, goals

When “cloud computing” became the buzz-phrase du jour in IT sometime in the past year or two, you could probably have been forgiven for having no idea what those two words meant, or for questioning whether they meant anything at all.

But as a major cloud computing conference in New York City made clear this week, analysts and vendors are converging on a standard definition of cloud computing, and agreeing that the cloud approach to technology is gaining traction in the minds of service providers and customers.

Cloud computing is not really a technology by itself but an approach to building IT services that harnesses several converging factors in the IT world, including the rapidly increasing horsepower of servers and virtualization technologies that unleash power by combining many servers into large computing pools and dividing single servers into multiple virtual machines that can be spun up and powered down at will.

Led by companies such as Amazon, vendors are building massively scalable server farms to offer compute power, storage, business software and application building platforms over the Internet, using self-service interfaces that let customers acquire resources at any time they want and get rid of them the instant they are no longer needed. Private clouds deployed by enterprises for their own users are built along the same principles, but done so completely within the firewall.

Amazon CTO Werner Vogels, delivering a speech at Sys-Con's Cloud Computing Conference & Expo this week, showed a slide featuring an early 1900s beer brewery that contained its own power generators. “They had to be experts in electricity to brew beer. Something is off there,” he said. “These guys couldn't wait to dump their own generators and start to use electricity from other companies.”

Just as electricity became a shared service, or utility, so too will computing power, Vogels and other commentators say. If you are the founder of a start-up that is building an application for Facebook, you have to prepare for the possibility of becoming immensely popular overnight, Vogels says. But you might also fail. That's why you need on-demand access to the power of 5,000 servers at any time, without having to spend the money up front. Or if you run a seasonal business, you may need huge amounts of computing power one month out of the year, but very little during the remaining 11 months.

“There is a shift from infrastructure being a capital expense to a variable cost,” Vogels said..

Cloud computing borrows concepts from grid computing, namely the ability to harness large collections of independent computing resources to perform large tasks; and from utility computing, namely the metered consumption of IT services, according to speaker Kristof Kloeckner, the cloud computing software chief at IBM. But perhaps the real impetus for cloud computing are failings within the current IT infrastructure, he says. Seven out of ten IT dollars are spent on maintaining current systems, and perhaps 85% of capacity in distributed computing environments sits idle at any given time, he said. Storage requirements are escalating too quickly for many data centers to keep up.

The basic message from vendors: Cloud computing, while still in its infancy, is the solution to these problems.

Sys-Con's conference coincided with the formation of the Cloud Security Alliance, an industry group urging common best practices in on-demand, Web-based computing. Separately, this week saw the release of the Open Cloud Manifesto, a document urging vendors to agree on basic principles related to cloud computing and the interoperability of competing cloud services. The manifesto drew criticism from \Microsoft, but has a long list of supporters including major industry players such as AMD, IBM, Rackspace, Sun and VMware.

Reuven Cohen, the founder and chief technologist for cloud computing start-up Enomaly, and one of the people responsible for bringing the manifesto to the public, said Tuesday that he has met with Microsoft, IBM, Cisco, Intel and other players and found some common ground. “We basically agreed that we have more in common than we have differences. I would describe it as ‘we're friends again,'” Cohen said.

Cohen is scheduled to speak at the Cloud Computing Forum on Wednesday and said he plans to advocate the creation of an industry association focused on marketing a cohesive picture of what cloud computing is.

While many vendors are still defining cloud computing in different ways, Cohen argues that “we can still compete but we don't necessarily have to tell different stories about what the cloud is. There is an opportunity to come together and grow the market.”

Still, many questions remain to be answered about cloud computing. Customers want data security, performance, availability, and service-level agreements guaranteeing minimum standards for all three.

While companies like Amazon and Rackspace offer computing power over the Web, and the Salesforce.coms of the world deliver software-as-a-service, a whole crop of third-party vendors who layer services over the cloud are starting to emerge.

Security and customers' ability to control their own resources are among the top concerns, says Patrick Kerpan, CTO of Cohesive FT, a vendor whose technology helps customers shift workloads to virtualized platforms and external cloud services with a standard interface. Cloud computing may be an improvement over existing systems in many ways, but “it's definitely not a panacea for bad design,” he says.

Cloud vendors will be judged on five points: security, scalability, availability, performance and cost-effectiveness, Vogels said. While there are shortcomings today, he predicted huge advancements in the next few years.

“It is still day one,” Vogels said. “We've just begun widespread deployment of these services.”

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