The Many Layers of the Cloud

Let’s discuss cloud computing in the context of the real-world enterprise. We’ve certainly heard a lot about the vision for cloud computing and what it can do for the delivery of applications, services, infrastructure, and even development and deployment. What’s less clear is how we take the vision and apply it to today’s enterprise concerns and requirements.

We’re going to look at the need for security, reliability, management and even integration across multiple instances of cloud services. Here to help us understand the difference between the reality and the vision for cloud computing is Frank Gillett. He is a vice president and principal analyst for general cloud computing topics and issues at Forrester Research. Welcome to the show, Frank.

Frank Gillett: Thanks very much, Dana.

Listen to the podcast (39:24 minutes).

Dana Gardner: You know, the whole notion of cloud computing isn’t terribly new. I think it’s more of a progression. We certainly had Internet and Web, Web applications, portals and Software as a Service (SaaS) applications. Now, taking it a step further, how do you define cloud computing? How can we put a box around this, given the large amount of hype that we’ve seen?

Gillett: Exactly, Dana. When I talk to folks in the industry, the old timers look at me and say, “Oh, time-sharing!” For some folks this idea, just like virtualization, harkens back to the dawn of the computer industry and things they’ve seen before. But when we think about what cloud computing is, there are really two things that are brought to the forefront.

The first is, as you suggest, the rise of the Internet and the notion that instead of having everything on my own computer, or in sort of the database server, I go visit this Web site over a public network instead of the client-server private network within my company. So, you date it back basically to the dawn of Internet search with the beginning of AltaVista, Yahoo, and then Google, where we had these applications called “search” that could only be hosted as a service provider.

We didn’t think of them as cloud, per se, because cloud was just this funny sketch on a white board that people used to say, “Well, things go into the network, magic happens, and something cool comes from somewhere.” Eventually, as you mentioned, those sorts of ideas began to morph into notions of actual SaaS, where I was running a business application as a service from a provider’s location.

On a separate track, with the idea of server virtualization — sharing one server as if it were several — VMware kicked off this technology for the x86 architecture, in the 1998-1999 timeframe. Of course, the idea originally came from the mainframe, and that technology for machine sharing is sort of the opposite of these giant Web workloads that span machines that have tens or thousands of servers. These two ideas have fused and are now under this umbrella called “cloud.” I see a wide range of definitions.

The way I work with folks is not to say, “Here is my definition,” but rather, “How are you thinking about it?” and then categorize it. So broadly speaking, SaaS is a finished service that end users take in. Platform as a Service (PaaS) is not for end users, but for developers.

With PaaS, think of a substitute for an application server, and if you think about this, then it’s an environment at a service provider. Instead of running your own application server or your own copy of an operating system on site, the developer writes the software and deploys it using the tools from the service provider. He deploys at the service provider and never has to think about operating systems, servers, storage architectures or any of that junk.

Now, some developers want more control at a lower level, right? They do want to get into the operating system. They want to understand the relationship among the different operating systems instances and some of the storage architecture.

At that layer, you’re talking about Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), where I’m dealing with virtual servers, virtualized storage, and virtual networks. I’m still sharing infrastructure, but at a lower level in the infrastructure. But I’m still not nailed to this specific hardware the way you are in, say, a hosting or outsourcing setup.

So, in simple terms, that’s how I think about it — SaaS for end users. PaaS for developers who don’t want to get into the infrastructure. And IaaS for developers who want to go that low, or for IT folks who have workloads that they want to bring from the back office and deploy in that environment. That latter one is still secondary, and the whole thing is still emerging. If you were looking at this in Internet time, we’re in 1995 or 1996.

Gardner: We’re in the opening innings of cloud computing, but there have been a number of converging trends and even economic incentives that have kicked in to make this top-of-mind for a lot of people now.

What’s going on from your research perspective at Forrester? You’re looking at adaption patterns. You’re looking at mind share. You’re looking at economic and technical rationales within enterprises. If we’re in the first or second inning in terms of vision, where are we in terms of implementation?

Gillett: Implementation, particularly when you look at it from the point of the view of the enterprise, is pretty early. When we surveyed folks to ask about their use of IaaS, we found 2 to 3 percent of enterprises, and about the same for small and medium-sized businesses (SMB), say that they are actually doing some form of pay-per-use hosting of virtual servers at a service provider.

You just can’t throw a cloud-computing phrase at someone and say, “Are you doing it?” Because most of them ask, “Well, what do you mean?” We have to ask specific questions.

We also asked folks about SaaS. When we look at adoption for that, a third of companies are doing some form of SaaS. In both cases, interestingly, the bigger the company, the more likely they are to be doing it, despite the hype that the small companies will go first. They tend not to grab the bleeding-edge technology, except for the startups. In cloud stuff, a lot of the noisy early adopters are start-ups that are very present on the Web, social media, blogs, and stuff like that.

A lot of the examples we hear about startups are like Animoto, Good Data, or Allurent who are using this capability to build their own businesses, and they’re talking a lot about it. It doesn’t necessarily mean that your typical enterprise is doing it, and if they are, it’s probably the developers, and it’s probably Web-oriented stuff. So it’s a specific subset of what’s happening in the enterprise.

Gardner: So, clearly there are some economic incentives for startups that get involved. They don’t have to have that upfront capital expense, they can pay as they scale. So, they can create a business model that’s commensurate with their costs.

Gillett: That’s right.

Dana Gardner is president and principal analyst at Interarbor Solutions, which tracks trends, delivers forecasts and interprets the competitive landscape of enterprise applications and software infrastructure markets for clients. He also produces BriefingsDirect sponsored podcasts. Follow Dana Gardner on Twitter. Disclosure: Akamai Technologies sponsored this podcast.

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