How can we leverage the cloud?

I used to get this question a lot at my current old company.   How can we, as a user of several operational systems, take more advantage of The Cloud?  This is where the infamous Gartner Hype Cycle, of which there are hundreds of examples, comes into play.   In terms of The Cloud within this cycle, I’d say we are getting higher and higher towards the ‘Peak of Inflated Expectations’.  As more and more technology companies commandeer the term for marketing purposes or shove some new software package onto EC2, expectations get set.  Marketing philosophy aside, I find myself explaining what the cloud can do, what its used for, and why we should use it to more and more folks in my office.

I recommend starting here for a general semantics overview to describe all the aspects of the cloud.  There is no One Cloud for all people.  I agree with the 3 layers of cloud services comprising of SaaS, PaaS, and IaaS.  The mainstream cloud service of Amazon Web Services is a IaaS and PaaS model, depending on which service you buy.

I think for corporate entities that have applications that are not web properties or scientific/analytic computations, the options for leveraging the cloud are relatively slim.   I know of 2 basic services that our company could possibly leverage today for their “operational systems”.  Database Backup service similar to Zmanda(that Ingres would of course build our own) and Outlook attachment offloading.   Not necessarily game changing use of the cloud.

The other alternative is to simply put demo environments on the cloud for our field reps, allowing them to spin up an environment when they need it without crushing their laptops with VMware or similar memory hogging technology.  Again, sort of a ho hum advantage.  This is where the cloud and its messaging will need to go through a marketing maturity model of sorts.  The current drum beat that the Cloud could save energy issues, eliminate system admins, etc. etc. all need to be set in context to some real business value proposition.

A recent webinar I attended hosted by Information Week took a poll of the attendees asking their interests in cloud services.  50% said they were “checking it out, still waiting to jump in”.  For all the hype and attention, the cloud is still a new fangled technology trying to find its way into more and more use cases.  This will continue to take place, in my opinion, until applications have been (re)written to take advantage of the cloud seamlessly(like Mathematica) or ground up cloud apps will come to market(which, you could argue the first gen SaaS players are already there).

I attended a conference last spring(2008) where Simon Crosby(CTO of Citrix / Xen) spoke about the future of Hypervisors and why everyone else was doing it wrong.  Entertaining talk.  Virtualization is to clouds like water is to farming, its simply a must have.  The piece that stuck with me was the current lack of instrumentation and toolkits for Hypervisors to understand the resource load requests of applications *before they request it*.  He went on to say that in order for more packaged apps to work with VMs and Hypervisors intelligently, more sophistication(and a standard) are needed to collect the needed meta metrics for a true dynamic elastic response.  Some applications do this today, but there is no standard, no toolkit to effectively enable developers to write applications  to respond to the benefits of the cloud.  Just like the plug in the wall, the load ebbs and flows depending on what I do.  All the “apps” writing to those plugs fit a standard API and thus the grid can respond to it predictively.

The talk was ages ago, so I do wonder what new is happening in the application development space to enable ISVs and customers to write “cloud aware” applications?

I think time and start up investment will change this in 2009.

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