Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Great Internal Cloud Debate: Where are we now?

In case you haven't been spending 24x7 keeping track of the industry chatter on the internal cloud and/or private cloud issue, I thought I'd point you to some recent relevant discussions. And maybe highlight what sounds something like a consensus that seems to be building about how this concept will affect (and even benefit) IT, shocking though that may be to you.

One of the most methodically thought-through and extensively discussed sets of definitions for clouds-that-aren't-really-what-everyone-meant-by-cloud-computing-in-the-first-place that I've seen recently was proposed by Chris Hoff (@Beaker on Twitter), which came complete with visual aids (thank you for that, Hoff, actually). Hoff's original point was to try to add some clarity to the "vagaries of cloudcabulary" as he described it -- and to show why using the HIPPIE (Hybrid, Public, Private, Internal, and External) terms for clouds interchangeably (as, ahem, I've kinda been doing myself around here) really doesn't help matters.

In cloud computing, there are lots of hairs to split on where the physical (er, or virtual) compute resource is located, who owns it, who manages it, who can access it -- and how. And, it turns out that after much debate, the private cloud term is the one that seems to be the squishiest. Hoff ended up with something that a lot of people liked (read his post, updates, and the comments to get the full picture), but I'm betting that the precision with which his definitions have been sculpted will be lost on many. He acknowledges that, too, in saying "I don't expect people to stop using [the] dumbed down definitions" and points specifically to comparing "private" clouds to "internal" ones as a prime offender.

So when is an internal cloud private? Or vice versa?

Since this internal v. private cloud distinction isn't one that we've really been making on this blog up to this point, I think it's worth explaining what we mean by each in light of the issues Hoff raised.

When we talk "internal clouds" here, we are mainly talking about using what you already have in your data center to create a dynamic resource pool, managed through policy-based automation software like what Cassatt provides. That means we are, for the most part, ignoring the status of a lot of the other key issues that Hoff discusses in our initial conversations. It's not that management and access (to name a few) aren't important, but they are topics that we add to the discussion along the way with customers. They are just not necessarily the first words out of our mouths.


Because we're trying to highlight what we think is the most important value to Cassatt customers: being able to leverage the concept of cloud computing by using what you already own inside your data center. In beginning this discussion about improving the efficiency of the data center resources an organization already has, the "internal cloud" moniker seems a fair, if somewhat imprecise, starting point. But you have to start somewhere.

Of course, after heading down that path a bit with a customer, the "private cloud" term may be the one that actually makes the most sense to describe what they are doing or working toward. It may be that the customer's ideal set-up includes both internal and external resources (I'm talking location here), and may need to be used by people and resources inside/outside the company, but still need to be trusted and integrated sufficiently to be considered part of that company's internal compute infrastructure. Hybrid cloud situations could definitely fall into this category, as they begin to move from the realm of PowerPoint to that of reality. And in all those cases, we should absolutely use the private cloud term.

So, we'll endeavor to be more precise in what we mean. Thanks for the pointers in the right direction, Hoff.

And, by the way, private cloud computing is suddenly everywhere

Having just said that there is a distinction between how someone uses private and internal clouds as a label, I am forced to note that the IT press and analyst communities seem to have latched onto the "private cloud" term much more aggressively, regardless of any distinctions. Or maybe those publishing recently have been following the debate (some certainly have on Twitter). I'll let you decide. In any case, here are a couple write-ups on private (and internal) clouds worth noting of late:

· InformationWeek’s Charlie Babcock covered “Why ‘Private Cloud’ Computing Is Real – And Worth Considering” pretty thoroughly. He argues that even though no single piece of an internal cloud architecture may look like a breakthrough, "private clouds represent a convergence of trends holding great promise for enterprise computing," enabling users to tap computing power without a lot of know-how. If your IT guys can master virtualization, he says, you'll master the private cloud (despite virtualization not being a requirement, it seems to be a good measuring stick). And, notes Charlie, "internal clouds aren't just a more efficient way of maintaining old data center practices." Instead, you have to rethink how you do things. Craig Vosburgh did a whole Data Center Dialog post about that topic if you're interested.

· Forrester's James Staten explained his view on how to "Deliver Cloud Benefits Inside Your Walls." While James does use both the internal and private cloud nomenclature, his first report in their "private cloud" series published April 13, 2009, puts Forrester's stake in the ground on the topic. While their definition is a little too virtualization- and developer-based for my tastes, I can't disagree with James that "the end result looks a lot like organic IT" -- the term Forrester has been using for a dynamic, utility-style data center since 2002.

· "Private Cloud Computing Is Real -- Get Over It," said Gartner's Tom Bittman in one in a series of blog posts on the topic. Tom has been pretty clear and pragmatic in his posts on this topic. Whether the name is precisely accurate is not the important point, he says. Instead, it's the idea. And he's in the middle of writing a bunch of research that, if his blog posts are any indication, will put Gartner's full weight behind the concept.

· Also from InformationWeek: what GE is doing with their private cloud, and what private cloud tools are hitting the market. (Yep, Cassatt got a quick mention.)

· 451 Group/Tier 1 Research explained that “The Sky’s the Limit: How Cloud Computing Is Changing the Rules” in their recent webcast. William Fellows recounted BT, Betfair, and Bechtel examples of how real customers are using private (and even hybrid) clouds in this webcast, created from a new report of theirs. Customer examples like this (and the ones in the InformationWeek articles) are great to see.

So where are we now?

To borrow a phrase, we've come a long way, baby. Frankly, even from when Cassatt started actively using the "internal cloud" term aggressively in customer-facing conversations in the middle of 2008 or when I first blogged on the topic here ("Are internal clouds bogus?"), there's been a notable change in both quality and quantity of discussions.

On the quality side of things: the conversation is no longer about whether this concept makes sense, but instead about who is doing it and the distinctions necessary for other companies to really get there. (Our own example: our recent webcast was explicitly about the steps toward creating an internal cloud.) This qualitative step forward is a good sign that the hype is starting to get outpaced by a little bit of real-world execution.

As for quantity, let's just say that my Google alerts for "private clouds" and "internal clouds" are going crazy. For fun (more or less), I set up "dueling Google alerts" on these two specific phrases a few months back. Some days they are more weighted toward one term, some days toward the other ("private clouds" won today, 8 mentions to 6). But the reality is that if I didn't have Google limiting their appearance in my inbox to only once a day, I wouldn't be able to keep my head above the, well, clouds.

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