When Is a Cloud Really a Cloud?

By Jeff Vance

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One of the more tech-geeky Cloud debates centers on what exactly Cloud computing is and whether or not “private Clouds” are a contradiction. Technically, perhaps, they are, but Cloud purists are already being drowned out by pragmatists.

Early Cloud leader, Amazon, isn’t worrying about definitions. They recently released the Amazon Virtual Private Cloud (VPC) service, a Cloud-based offering that tries to mimic a private data center. The idea is that you can cordon off your resources just as you would in-house. You get many of the benefits of outsourcing, while mitigating many of the risks―even if many of those risks are perceived, rather than real.

“Amazon’s Cloud service is very robust. However, it’s not really a solution for the average enterprise, especially those without much IT support and with few or no developers,” said Agatha Poon, an analyst with the Yankee Group.

Poon and her colleagues track how the Cloud is penetrating the enterprise. In a survey of 500 enterprise IT pros, Yankee found that the private Cloud is far and away the most popular model for early adopters. The next most popular model is the hybrid public-private Cloud, with the “pure” public Cloud coming in at a distant third.

Patterns of Adoption

According to Yankee Group, no one vertical is driving the space. Healthcare is interested. Media companies are too, but few verticals are jumping onto the Cloud bandwagon en masse. There is one trait that early Cloud adopters have in common, though: they were early adopters of virtualization. With their server and storage infrastructure virtualized, they end up asking themselves, “What’s next?” Often, the answer is Cloud computing.

“The biggest driver is availability,” Poon said. “With a Cloud-enabled infrastructure, it’s easier for end users to access critical applications on other devices or to simply work remotely. Especially for applications that lack constant demand, the Cloud makes sense.”

An organization that has sunk a good deal of capital into creating their own optimized infrastructure isn’t going to abandon that investment and hand its applications over to a public Cloud vendor. Instead, they’ll do the sensible thing and apply Cloud technologies to their own data centers, while maybe getting their feet wet in the public Cloud; using it for something very limited and specific, such as disaster recovery.

Unlike the client roster for Amazon Web Services or Google’s App Engine, which tend to be small, developer-centric organizations, larger enterprises are guided by vendors when it comes to new technologies. They have stable relationships in place and they trust those relationships. What this means is they are encouraged to develop their own internal clouds. Cisco, Microsoft, Citrix, VMware, etc. derive the most value by giving their customers the tools and the gear to build their own internal clouds.

Moreover, if you have a trusted technology partner who makes money selling hardware and shrink-wrap software, chances are they’re warning you off of the public Cloud. You’ll hear horror stories about security and compliance, and you’ll probably leave the public Cloud alone until your vendors blaze the trail for you. After all, why would a Microsoft shop jump to Amazon when they can simply bide their time and wait for Azure to mature? That is unless you have a compelling reason pushing you towards the Cloud today.

Sony Struggles with Storage

One such compelling reason can be storage. When it comes to rich media and unstructured data, storage is a nightmare.

“Even in a slowing economy, data growth continues and IT managers struggle with cost and capacity challenges every day. Today, we are seeing an explosion in digital documents and rich media in all types of businesses. This presents significant challenges to storage teams who need to account for rapid scaling of capacity and performance in an environment that scrutinizes every capital expense,” said Terri McClure, an analyst with Enterprise Strategy Group.

Sony Pictures Imageworks is currently coping with one such storage nightmare. As with many media companies, storage is not just a recurring bad dream, but it’s also a cost center, and an extremely expensive one. “We have been able to leverage commodity economics in all parts of our infrastructure, but storage has been the holdout,” said Steve Kowalski, senior systems architect at Sony Pictures Imageworks.

To address this issue, Imageworks is an early tester of ParaScale’s Cloud storage offering. ParaScale Cloud Storage (PCS) software can be applied to any standard Linux platform, allowing enterprises to cluster hundreds of commodity servers together to act as a file repository with massive capacity and parallel throughput. Imageworks is currently testing PCS to determine whether a private storage Cloud might better the economics of its storage-intensive infrastructure.

“After realizing benefits across workstations, render farms, and operating systems, we have the opportunity to see the benefits of commodity hardware in storage,” Kowalski said.

Chicago Museum Struggles

The Museum of Broadcast Communications (MBC), located in downtown Chicago, had a similar problem as Imageworks. Since its inception in 1987, the not-for-profit museum’s goal has been to collect, preserve and present a wide array of historic and contemporary radio and television programming.

As MBC began moving its collection online a couple of years ago, problems started to crop up. “We don’t charge people to access our archives, but we do ask them to register,” said Bruce DuMont, founder and president of MBC. “Almost overnight, we had 8,000 registered online users, and we started to choke on our own success.”

Through the years, the primary technical challenge MBC faced was putting together a large enough storage infrastructure to serve up a massive amount of stored digital and unstructured data. When their single-server storage setup inevitably failed to meet growing demand, MBC had to suspend their online services. That’s when luck intervened. By chance, Chris Gladwin, CEO of Cloud storage startup Cleversafe, was a registered user of MBC. When DuMont sent out an email to members explaining why MBC had to suspend its online service, Gladwin was one of the recipients.

DuMont and Gladwin talked and learned that they were both located in downtown Chicago and set up a meeting. Soon thereafter, MBC contracted Cleversafe to start building out an advanced, Cloud-based, distributed storage infrastructure.

Cleversafe’s technology divides data into “slices” and disperses them to multiple storage nodes on a distributed storage network. Each individual “slice” contains too little information to be useful by itself, but when a certain threshold of slices is reached, they can be used to perfectly recreate the original data. Moreover, Cleversafe claims that the sum capacity of all the slices is significantly less than maintaining multiple copies of the original data, making data management easier and less expensive.

In addition to using Cleversafe to store their data, MBC also relies on the technology for distribution rather than implementing a separate content delivery network. When users view content on the MBC website, the data is pulled directly from Cleversafe storage and displayed via a media server in front of the Cleversafe hardware, saving MBC money and physical space without sacrificing performance or scalability for their end users.

“(Cleversafe) gave us a way to store and distribute our content―really, our bread and butter―within our budget. And, because of the money we saved both on the solution itself and on not needing a separate CDN, we can now afford to continue digitizing our remaining content, making our presentations better for our viewers,” DuMont said. Today, MBC serves up over 8,500 unique digital assets to more than 36,000 registered users.

Nobody Knows

Whether purists would call Imageworks’ or MBC’s Clouds real Clouds or not is beside the point. As the old New Yorker cartoon quipped, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” The same can be said with Cloud services. If end users get what they want and it works, nobody cares whether it’s a public Cloud, a private one or a hybrid. The only thing they care about is whether or not it works. And, at least for some, Clouds work.

Jeff Vance is a freelance writer and the founder of Sandstorm Media, a writing and marketing services firm focused on emerging technology trends. If you have ideas for future stories, contact him at jeff@sandstormmedia.net or visit www.sandstormmedia.net.