The Virtually Cloudy Future

Arthur Cole

Right from the beginning, it was obvious that virtualization was not an end to itself. It was a stepping stone to an even grander data center.

Now, that vision is becoming both clear and, well, cloudy, as more and more IT executives grow accustomed to the concept of cloud computing even as they struggle to determine what it all means.

One thing is certain, however. You cannot get on the cloud without first virtualizing the three key elements of your enterprise: servers, storage (well, storage networking to be exact) and the general networking infrastructure. In fact, once you've reached that point, you're already on the cloud, according to Tom Nolle, principal analyst at CIMI Corp. His take in Virtualization Review is that once you create a pool of resources that can extend across multiple applications, you essentially have the workings of a private, internal cloud. It's only a small step from there to open those apps to a broader resource pool housed elsewhere.

While this creates tremendous possibilities in terms of load management, availability, archiving and the like, it's important to remember that this new infrastructure won't be able to manage itself, says Freeform Dynamics' Jon Collins in The Register. Managing virtual resources is already a challenge, and the cloud will present some unique difficulties of its own. Some things to consider are the practical limits of workload migration set by available bandwidth and whether there are legal issues surrounding the movement of data across geographic boundaries. And could there be such a thing as too much management?

The evolution from virtualization to the cloud is evidenced by the shift in vendor platforms over the past year. Traditional hardware providers like Dell have made no secret of the fact that they think the cloud is the ultimate goal as data centers transition from the static silos of the past to a more flexible and dynamic infrastructure. Computerworld's Beth Schultz, for example, has Dell Senior Architecture Matt Brooks describing the company's plans to go from a fully virtualized platform to one that features fully aggregated resources and ultimately to a completely automated environment where all resources are managed as a single cloud.

We also have virtualization leader VMware essentially jumping to the cloud in one shot with the acquisition of SpringSource, the open source developer of a Java application environment that recently came out with an upgraded cloud management stack. The expectation is that this technology will be folded into the vSphere platform to allow enterprises to convert their existing VMware infrastructure into an instant cloud.

Still, we get back to the fact that even as the IT industry makes this transition from the virtual to the cloud, the endpoint is still rather fuzzy, which is why we have so many experts seeking to "define" the cloud.

But perhaps it's best to leave that definition intentionally vague. Most likely, cloud computing will take many forms and provide multiple capabilities -- a function of the very flexibility that is being engineered into the underlying infrastructure.

In that way, we can stop worrying about what it all means and start focusing on what works.

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