Despite calls for standardisation, there seems as many different types of cloud computing as one’s imagination might allow. Some of these might eventually merge, but if not, what might that mean for VAR or service provider looking into the clouds for future revenue?
David Bradshaw, EMEA applications and solutions research manager for IDC, said a cloud opportunities fall into two groups: people providing software to set up a cloud or people such as WebEx or MessageLabs using the cloud as a software delivery model.
“There are different problems for these two groups. For the people who are providing apps, the main problem is that it isn’t their problem but their customers’ problem. So that’s about providing standards around the way you move things around,” he said.
Although in principle the customer can easily switch providers, transferring one set of data from one vendor to another and moving your business processes configured in the original vendor’s software can be tricky. Bradshaw’s view is that vendors should work out “terms of disengagement” for customers.
“That would be a process that you go through that ensures that you can make those transfers,” he said. “Customers ask, ‘if I don’t like it, am I going to be dependent on it because I have switched off my own infrastructure?’. It is a knotty problem, more about data semantics, and it is not completely soluble.”
Unstandardised cloud services may define and work with a customer’s data in new or different ways, unintentionally ‘locking them in’ to a specific provider or software set-up.
And how do you tell if your customer is dead, for example? It might sound silly, but being able to tell such things is critical for life assurance firms. If a life assurance company has 20 different systems, some of which help the firm tell when to pay out or when to collect more money, getting a mismatch between those systems can result in irate (living) customers or worse.
“On the other side, the principle problem if you are selling a Platform as a Service (PaaS) is that it is almost by definition going to be proprietary. By and large, the non-proprietary ones are all single-tenant. You need platforms that support multiple tenants at the same time,” Bradshaw said.
Vendors can find themselves just as locked in as service providers. However, even SAP has now conceded to the extent that it is re-doing Business ByDesign as multi-tenant. It is likely other players will follow its lead. Users may also use a proprietary platform or a proprietary service on that platform.
“And that’s unavoidable. But the way around is that vendors have to make it as familiar as you possibly can and be clear about where the differences exist,” said Bradshaw. “Then you can have a degree of portability between platforms, which, frankly, is a bit weak at the moment.”
At the other end of the scale, you have people offering raw processing power via the cloud, such as virtual servers. “And they are very, very keen on standards,” Bradshaw said.
Multiple groups have sprung up to work out various cloud standards, but only a handful would survive. They would likely end up defining sets of general ground rules that everybody would try to follow, that take customer needs into account, said Bradshaw.
Keith Gnagey, EMEA managing director at data management provider i365, said standardisation is necessary.
Doing it their own way
“Everyone is doing it their own way; there aren’t any standards. The customer can’t really differentiate. So I think something needs to occur but it will take some time,” Gnagey said.
Some things could be achieved now, though. For example, terms and conditions for customers can be outlined and adhered to. Although that wasn’t an act of standardisation in itself, it would, he argued, help customers move data and contracts around.
Cloud services contracts had the same essential building blocks as any services contract – and that goes for the construction of cloud standards too – in that there is a lot of pattern in the past that you can bring forward.
“Third-party cloud services providers need to make sure they understand from their provider where and how all their customer data will or won’t be used,” Gnagey said. “How can you protect data and maintain business continuity?”
Andy Walsky, EMEA vice president for sales and marketing at data protection vendor Overland Storage, agreed. “The lack of standards, especially around data protection, remains one of the biggest challenges for resellers and service providers looking to position themselves as cloud experts,” he said.
Walsky said this was particularly true of public clouds where providers have access to customers' unencrypted data but may not necessarily manage that data with the level of security that customer wants.
“There is also increased concern over customers being locked into a provider’s cloud technology due to a lack of interoperability,” Walsky said.
“I think the industry knows that cloud adoption will struggle this year if we can’t figure out a way of integrating data and applications across clouds. Even though the Cloud Computing Interoperability Forum (CCIF) has been actively working this issue for the past 12 months, there’s still a great deal of work to do.”
The US-based CCIF is working on thorny issues around cloud APIs, security, privacy, taxonomy, the private cloud, hybrid clouds, Platform versus Infrastructure as a Service, interoperability, and licensing.
Turf wars may start. As reported by CRN [8 Jan issue], the UK-based Cloud Industry Forum (CIF) is drawing up a code of conduct to help firms get their heads around the cloud concept. The self-regulating body is a sub-group of the Federation Against Software Theft (FAST), chaired by Fasthosts chief executive Andy Burton.
Burton told CRN that CIF aims to help end users and providers towards best practice. A draft of its code was due at press time. Meanwhile, at least one VAR critic, NTS managing director Jonathan Lassman, argued to our reporter that the cloud is too big and “impossible” to police without adequate standards.
Holding back innovation
Craig Nunes, vice president of marketing at utility storage provider 3PAR, noted that the cloud space is only 10 years into a 30-year road to maturity and so it may really still be too early for standards, which encourage conformity that could easily hold back innovation.
“But I think the interesting thing about the cloud standards discussion is that there is a whole lot of drama and intrigue,” he said. “And I think there is an amount of resistance to standardisation.”
Nunes said people appreciate standards but they do tend to end up becoming a definition of the lowest common denominator. Such a “vanilla” approach to the cloud might hold the industry back.
“So how do you advance that change and standards at the same time?” he asked.
Meanwhile, older web API standards such as Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) meant a degree of “interoperability” did already exist. SOAP is more rob ust than some, and drives more complexity, but is not stateless so more work is required, Nunes said.
In the end, it all comes back to listening to and researching the customer, and striving to achieve what the customer wants and needs, said Nunes.
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