Send in the clouds

The focus of EMC World 2009 might have been the inevitability of cloud computing as “the next big thing” – yes, really, this time – but few of the 7.000 attendees from around the world really expected EMC to lay on thunderstorms and heavily clouded skies mid-May in central Florida.

As a metaphor for its future prospects, it was perhaps just a little too clever. After all, the industry is in a recession. Major IT players typically saw their Q1 revenues drop to the mid-teens; however, according to feisty Joe Tucci (who straddles with confidence the roles of Chairman, President and CEO at EMC), the major storage player saw a drop of only 9%.

Smart marketing, great products or a key sign of the importance the market is placing on storage as the key to business success riding out of the economic conditions? According to the new EMC-sponsored IDC study titled ‘As the Economy Contracts, the Digital Universe Expands’, the amount of digital information created in 2008 grew 3% faster than IDC’s prior projection. Looking forward, the Digital Universe is expected to double in size every 18 months. That means, in 2012, five times as much digital information will be created than in 2008.

Calculated to be 487 billion gigabytes in size, the amount of information created last year was, for example, the equivalent of more than 4.8 quadrillion on-line bank transactions or 162 trillion digital photos.

However, while the pace of digital information increased in 2008, IT budgets declined. That means an even larger divide between the amount of information generated and the amount of IT resources purchased and deployed to manage it. Hence the demand for tools and techniques such as virtualisation, deduplication and other data reduction technologies geared specifically to managing more with less.

In Tucci’s view, “the growth of digital information collides with everyday business and everyday life” leading to the need to seek out “new and creative ways to manage, secure and protect the rapidly-growing volumes”.

He sees the role of EMC, double playing as both technology and infrastructure company, as delivering on customer demands which are fairly standard across the globe and all industries from delivering services on reduced budgets, ever-faster ROI, reduced business risk and preparation for next-gen technologies – all of which Tucci categorises as “more efficiency, more control, more choice”.

And the route to that is by saving customer costs, offering them new routes to market and keeping closer to them – “touching” them, in his words. With a commitment to keep R&D spend high – last year it was $1.7b or an industry enviable 12% of revenue – EMC is determined to attack costs for customers, which is where “they meet the road”. Not surprisingly, he sees real opportunities for EMC in delivering that with new products and services on offer, against a background of a world drowning in data – information held on disk arrays, for example, is currently showing anywhere between a 40 and 60% CAGR, depending on which analyst or storage company you talk to.

The answer, of course, to concerns about spending on new technology in bad business conditions is that it will deliver more, faster. As Frank Hauck, Executive VP of Global Marketing in EMC’s Storage Division, put it: “A five year TCO? No, thank you!” So the answer, in EMC’S strategic view, is not only to manage more information – that’s like saying that to survive in business, executives need to remember to breathe – but more crucially to manage that information more effectively.

Enter the world of the cloud…

Dynamic infrastructure, flexibility, cost reductions and increased reliability – who wouldn’t want that? The problem is that, like earlier attempts over the last two decades to shift IT shops from traditional data centre thinking, the dream hits road bumps as soon as customers start looking hard at the reality. As Chuck Hollis, EMC’s CTO Global Marketing, admitted, “The cloud demands virtualisation that scales – at present, we can’t really get that from anyone.”

However, EMC’s strength in virtualisation with its VMware products may be just enough to push the paradigm forward, though at present it looks as if cloud computing is just a play for the large organisations, even though there was some discussion by Tucci about the future market prospects of pushing the cloud down to the SMB market in due course.

That said, 50% adoption is still many years away and a tipping point for market leaders possibly by the end of 2010. In a time of economic worries, this is clearly not a strong revenue stream for EMC in the short term. However, the longer game has always been one of EMC’s strengths – VMware started desktop virtualisation a decade ago, for example. The road that led from there to effectively a software mainframe has seen 130,000 customers coming along for the ride.

“At the end of the game, it’s all virtualised – there’s no argument there,” Hollis asserts. And what has changed the rules have been the new technologies released in the past two months by EMC and VMware that enable virtual data centres and private cloud computing.

In April, EMC introduced the new EMC Symmetrix V-Max storage system, a breakthrough new approach to high-end data storage with an innovative new architecture purpose-built to support thousands of virtual servers. In May, VMware introduced VMware vSphere4, the industry’s first operating system for building the private cloud, enabling the delivery of efficient, flexible and reliable IT as a service.

As Tucci claimed: “Virtualisation has taken a major step forward with the vSphere release. It has moved far beyond a neat way to consolidate servers and morphed into a new way to build data centres and consume IT as a service.”

Of course, the cloud is not really a technology by itself – it is an approach to building IT services that harnesses the rapidly increasing horsepower of servers as well as virtualisation technologies that combine many servers into large computing pools and divide single servers into multiple virtual machines that can be spun up and powered down at will.

By definition, it is on-demand and includes attributes previously associated with utility and grid models. They are all part of the industry-wide transition to Web-based IT delivery models. For the enterprise, cloud computing might best be viewed as a series of “on-line business services”, says IDC analyst Frank Gens. Forrester analyst James Staten explains: “Public clouds are easily accessible, multi-tenant virtualised infrastructures that are managed via a self-service portal.” On the other hand, private clouds mimic the delivery models of public cloud vendors but do so entirely within the firewall for the benefit of an enterprise's users. A private cloud would be highly virtualised, stringing together mass quantities of IT infrastructure into one or a few easily managed logical resource pools.

The largest enterprises are interested in private clouds because public clouds are not yet scaleable and reliable enough to justify transferring all of their IT resources to cloud vendors. That much is admitted by EMC and ‘ecosystem’ partners like Cisco. IDC surveys show the top uses of the cloud as being IT management, collaboration, personal and business applications, application development and deployment, and server and storage capacity.

Going forward, cloud vendors will have to adopt standards-based technologies in order to ensure true interoperability, according to several industry groups. The recently released Open Cloud Manifesto supports interoperability of data and applications, whilst the Open Cloud Consortium is promoting open frameworks that will let clouds operated by different entities work seamlessly together. The goal is to move applications from one cloud to another without having to rewrite them.

VMware President and CEO Paul Maritz believes that, “by and large, new applications are no longer being written to traditional operating systems. The new frameworks that people are programming allow us to find out in a much more natural way what the application is doing and we can then use the information to make management better and use underlying resources – whether it is servers, networks or storage – more efficiently because we have deeper insight into the application.”

Whether you want to call it the software mainframe or the private cloud, the concept is the same. But how do you get this aggregation of resources to become fundamentally more dynamic, more flexible and more efficient? “To do that you have to work in conjunction with those resources,” explains Maritz. “You have to signal information down to them and get information back from them so that you can take the right steps necessary before you start sliding things around. We have made significant investments to take those steps and are delivering that capability to customers.”

However, EMC has no plans to roll out the cloud infrastructure itself – that’s what its partners are for, after all. So, for example, EMC Atmos onLine is a new Internet delivered cloud storage service built on EMC Atmos, a policy-based information management platform. It provides COS (Cloud Optimized Storage) capabilities to customers of all sizes that need to move and manage large amounts of information cost-effectively while delivering reliable service levels, information protection and secure access.

Equally, EMC Atmos internal to external federation is a new capability enabling customers to move — or federate — data from on-premise (or internal) to off-premise (or external) Atmos clouds. For example, a customer can set policies to federate their information to an external Atmos storage cloud for cost efficiencies and collaboration. Federation is a critical step in the adoption of cloud-based computing models since most customers are reluctant to move 100% of their information into a cloud Internet infrastructure. EMC Atmos with federation provides customers with the cost and operational efficiencies of cloud, while maintaining the important controls – and selective choice — of what data resides where.

“It is clear that IT organisations have the desire to adopt cloud storage technologies. It is also clear that they must maintain the necessary controls over where their data resides while preserving the investments of existing applications and infrastructures,” says Ben Woo, VP of Enterprise Storage Systems Research at IDC.”By introducing the ability to federate data from on-premise to on-line, EMC's Atmos is providing a differentiated approach to cloud storage, while delivering the choice, control, flexibility – and cost efficiencies – of cloud.”

How this then plays out in the partner community is shown by AT&T which has selected EMC Atmos to power its AT&T Synaptic Storage as a Service, a storage-on-demand offer that provides enterprise customers with control over the storage, distribution and retrieval of their data anytime, anywhere using any Web-enabled device.

The key to success for the service provicder community, says AT&T’s VP of Hosting and Application Services, Steven Caniano, is “not envisaging just the cloud, but seeing it as one of several solutions offered via the network”. He talks instead of “a cloud burst” to a premise over a private connection as an obvious initial stage.

That’s taging approach resnates well with Michael Feinberg, Senior VP of EMC’s Cloud Infrastructure Group. “”Don’t approach cloud computing from the size of the business,” he advises, “but from the application or business problem and ask yourself this question: ‘Can the cloud architecture be rolled out quickly and applied to your business problem?’ You need to look at the opportunities with cloud in terms of what is core to your business and what you want to accomplish.”

Other customers are already using EMC Atmos to build robust and flexible distributed cloud storage infrastructures. For example, eBay selected EMC Atmos for its storage needs and the two companies worked closely for more than a year to create a reliable, scaleable cloud storage infrastructure.

The good news for EMC is that guiding enterprises to the cloud via virtualisation offers a very short-term, very high ROI, making it seemingly irresistible. A straight choice between a risky and expensive uphaul to 10G or an efficiency delivery server virtualisation programme is going to prove to be a no-brainer to most IT shops, especially when boardrooms can be comforted by higher levels of management control and reporting systems, together with increased business flexibility.

The main inhibitor, apart from perennial security discussions, is getting customers to understand ‘what can cloud computing do for me?’ The temptation to see it just like large-scale back-up is high and EMC and partner consultants will need to stress hard that the benefits come when the cloud is seen as a real opportunity to take advantage of data distribution.

However, even within EMC, there is discussion about the speed of industry implementation of cloud computing. As VP of Product Marketing for EMC’s Storage Division, Barbara Robidoux might be expected to be bullish about quick adoption, as her group’s new Symmetrix V-Max would be the storage system of choice. She takes a different point of view, though: “I’m kinda conservative on the cloud. I’m intrigued by it and I do see it happening but my division is focused on so many other areas of the business as well, especially virtualisation, at present.”

The challenge, according to Hollis, is “to change the IT state of mind, not the technology. It’s going to be all about people, processes and politics. The danger is that the answer to a technology problem looks like some people to being just a shift to an HR problem.”

However it works for you, the cloud is coming. Just as long as the horrible new Americanism – “cloudify” – doesn’t catch on as well!

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