Cloud Computing Comes Down to Earth

Instead of focusing on definitions and the question of public or private, IT managers would be better off asking about license costs and service-level agreements when considering a cloud option as a platform for running business workloads.

SANTA CLARA, Calif.-The most striking aspect of the first full day of the Cloud Leadership Forum was that the industry vendors in attendance were still defining cloud computing. It's worth noting that the two companies that I see at the forefront of cloud computing-VMware and not at the forum, for which I counted about 350 attendees here June 14 at the Santa Clara Convention Center.

If I hadn't heard this same peppery question of cloud definition come up at an intimate but influential dinner hosted by the Internet Research Group, themed "Getting Our Heads Out of the Clouds," at which a Citrix Systems representative was one of the featured speakers, I might have passed it off as simply a level-setting exercise. In this case, to paraphrase Queen Gertrude in Shakespeare's "Hamlet," the industry doth define too much, methinks.

Between VMware and, the concept of severing the connection between workloads and the underlying hardware so that a business process can be executed on the most appropriate platform has been aptly demonstrated in the real world. And given the rapidly evolving slate of vendors that also offer virtual and subscription-based services, it's important for IT managers to have a more or less standard vocabulary that can be used to discuss their strategic needs. But it's time to unmire ourselves from cloud vendor spelling bees and use that time and energy to evaluate actual product offerings.

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Several of the sessions I attended at the IDC/IDG Enterprise-produced Cloud Leadership Forum did move the conversation on to what I think is the next and more substantial phase of cloud computing. Insightful questions about licensing and platform suitability for specific workloads brought a draft of fresh air to both the discussion on manageability and a vendor-sponsored breakout session led by CSC. In both sessions some really useful advice emerged-as it did in the CIO panel discussion featuring Bechtel Group CIO Thor Geir Ramleth and James Rinaldi, the CIO of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Both Ramleth and Rinaldi talked about first using virtualization as a go-forward requirement for providing infrastructure to their internal customers. Next, they evaluated workloads against internal criteria to determine if the business function could be better provided if run on a cloud platform. They then methodically worked through a plan to move these workloads and evaluated the results.

In Bechtel's case, Ramleth told the audience he was able to build three new modern data centers with no new budget request based on savings garnered from the tremendous efficiencies in his infrastructure (in this case, a so-called private cloud.) Rinaldi discussed how he was able to provide access to a "public cloud" to handle burst traffic while providing scientists with a self-service infrastructure that kept them from "going rogue" and using a credit card to buy services in the open market.

There are real technical, business and legal hurdles that IT managers face today and will face in the not-too-distant future when it comes to using cloud resources. It's time to dissolve the marketing glue that keeps the discussion stuck on a definition of the cloud.

Instead of definitions, IT managers should insist that vendors talk about licensing, legal, service-level and physical-world hardware questions. In the answers to these next-generation questions IT managers may discover where we need to define new terms for the discussion, but it's time to really get our heads out of the clouds and focus on the nuts and bolts, benefits and pitfalls, costs and payoffs that are associated with providing the best computing environment for running business workloads.