The original premise of the cloud was that it would offload much of the hardware burden that many enterprises have been struggling with while maintaining data center service levels and functionality -- all at a lower cost.
Whether you consider this to be a true form of cloud computing or simply a handy catch phrase for services already available under the guise of grid computing, utility computing or (fill in the blank)-as-a-service is beside the point. The goal is to deliver the same IT experience without having to kit out your own data center.
But then along comes the internal or private cloud, which provides the same functionality as the standard cloud but within your own data center infrastructure. Huh? If the cloud is intended to provide the experience without the hardware, then what exactly am I getting if I run the cloud on my own infrastructure? Or is this simply a way for savvy vendors to get people to buy into a new idea without throwing away their legacy plant?
Even though it might seem like a misnomer, there are some actual benefits to a private cloud beyond simply providing a test bed for eventual third-party cloud services. In fact, says Cycle Computing's Jason Stowe, the chief benefit is that it allows you to leverage that other major investment of the past five years or so: virtualization. If done right, he argues, a private cloud can help you take virtual infrastructure beyond simple consolidation and into areas like peak load management, application efficiency and lower-cost backup and redundancy. In short, by shifting application workloads to dynamically available resources, you no longer have to maintain overly large, disparate infrastructures to ensure service is available where it's needed.
That seems to be the experience of Verizon Communications, which claims it has improved performance by 400 percent through its most recent internal cloud program. The company says it has been able to streamline not only its hardware infrastructure, but operating systems, databases, middleware and applications -- so much so that it is actually reducing its data center footprint, rather than increasing it to meet growing data needs. I can't wait until I see a subsequent reduction in my phone bill.
At First America Corp., chief architect Jake Seitz reports that one of the top benefits of its internal cloud has been to lighten the load on IT management staff. Under the company's virtual environment, top-level engineers spent much of their time provisioning and decommissioning virtual machines -- not a big improvement on the old hardware management days. But under the cloud, the company is able to mount a self-service interface using VMware and SharePoint that allows users to manage their own VMs.
While it's easy to get caught up in arguments over which is the "real" cloud, internal or external, the fact is that most enterprises will probably end up with both, says Klavs Landberg, founder of file virtualization specialist AutoVirt. That means the real discussion should be about the best way to integrate the two to produce a single, smooth-running dynamic environment. Not surprisingly, he says the best way to do this is with an integrated virtual storage environment that allows data to be moved between clouds.
The cloud, like most IT infrastructure, is not a "one-size-fits-all" proposition. Smaller companies that have the option to outsource all their IT needs will certainly benefit from lower start-up costs and fewer ongoing maintenance and management hassles. But larger firms using internal resources will find that they can get much more done with less hardware on the ground.
It's a rare example of new technology actually making life simpler even as it increases our capabilities.