A Cloud is a Cloud is a Cloud?

It never fails to amaze me that it seems like every vendor in the industry, every hosting company and every virtualization or database vendor that puts something in one of the Public Clouds is quick to claim that “They have a Cloud”. A while back they even invented a term for that. The term is “CloudWashing” (i.e. naming everything that you have as “Cloud”)

Let’s apply some common sense. Back in 2011 the National Institute of Standards (NIST) produced a concise and clear definition of what it means for something to be a Cloud. You can read about it here. This is the standard against which all Cloud pretenders should be measured. In case you don’t have time to read it I will summarize.

The NIST model defines a Cloud as “Enabling convenient, on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources (e.g., networks, servers, storage, applications, and services) that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort or service provider interaction. (The underlining is mine)

It is composed of:

  • 5 Essential characteristics
  • 3 Service models
  • 4 Deployment models

The 5 essential characteristics are:

  • On-demand self-service
  • Broad network access
  • Resource pooling
  • Rapid elasticity
  • Measured service

The 3 Service Models are:

  • Software as a Service (SaaS)
  • Platform as a Service (PaaS)
  • Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS)

The 4 Deployment Models are:

  • Public Cloud
  • Private Cloud
  • • Community Cloud
  • • Hybrid Cloud

Let’s take the definitions apart a bit and see what makes them tick:

The 5 Essential Characteristics

On-demand self-service: Being able to self-provision and de-provision resources as needed, without vendor involvement.

Broad network access: Resources available over a network accessed through standard protocols from all kinds of devices. For Public Clouds, these resources are typically available all over the world with data centers that accommodate all country’s need for data sovereignty and locality.

Resource pooling: Lots of resources that can be allocated from a large pool. Often the user does not know, or have to know, their exact location. Although, in the case of Public Clouds like Microsoft Azure, locality is often under the user’s control. In many cases the pool of resources appears to be nearly infinite.

Rapid elasticity: The ability to scale up and down as needed at any time, in some cases automatically, based on policies set by the user.

Measured service: Providing the ability to track costs and allocate them.  Public Cloud resources are often  funded using an Operating Expenditure (OpEx) rather than the Capital Expenditure (CapEx) accounting model used where hardware purchases are involved.

The 3 Service Models

In the case of Public Clouds these service models are defined by who supports various levels in the technology stack; the customer or the cloud vendor.

This Microsoft Azure diagram has been in existence, in one form or another, at least since the 1970s:

clip_image002[4]

It illustrates who is responsible for what part of each service type the Vendor (in blue) and the customer (in black).

Software as a Service (SaaS) asks the customer to take no responsibility for the underlying hardware and software stack. In fact, the customers only responsibility is to use the service and pay for it.

Platform as a Service (PaaS) lets the vendor manage the lower layers of the technology stack, while the customer is responsible for the Application and Data layers.

Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) corresponds most closely to what the customer must manages  in a typical data center and what the vendor is responsible for. With IaaS, the vendor takes care of everything from part of the operating system layer to the bottom of the stack. Notice that in Azure the operating system layer is partly the vendor’s responsibility, and partly the customer’s. The customer is still responsible for applying operating system patches, for instance. (This may differ slightly for other Public clouds.)

I often include a slide in my Cloud presentations that addresses the question of what to use when. In my mind the decision tree is fairly obvious:

  • It’s SaaS until it isn’t
    • Then It’s PaaS until it isn’t
      • Then It’s IaaS
  • Or Hybrid with any of the above

If you can find a SaaS service that meets your objectives, use it. Let the vendor have all the stack support headaches. If you can’t, then consider using PaaS by either buying a 3rd party application or building your own.

Finally, if none of these approaches work, you can always take advantage of IaaS since that most closely matches what you have in your own data center. Even there, however, the vendor will take care of a great deal of the plumbing. (As an aside IaaS is often the approach of choice for taking a “lift and shift” approach to migrating what you already have running in your data center up into the cloud.)

And yes, I know we haven’t discussed Hybrid yet, but patience, we will get there.

The 4 Deployment Models

A Public Cloud is a pool of computing resources offered by a vendor, typically, on a “pay as you go” basis. It supports Self-Provisioning by its customers as discussed above. It also often has a massive global presence and appears to have near-infinite capacity. In general, it is available to anyone.

Gartner defines a large number of Leadership Quadrants, but the ones that are most relevant to our discussion are the ones for Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) and Platform as a Service (PaaS). The Gartner Leadership Quadrant for IaaS includes just Amazon and Microsoft. The one for PaaS just includes Microsoft Azure and Salesforce. There are other lesser Public Cloud vendors including Google, IBM and Rackspace.

One other point: Unless a company can spend the many billions of dollars necessary to create a global datacenter presence it is hard for them to be considered a Public Cloud leader.

A Private cloud on the other hand is normally local to a single company. It is normally located on their own premises. If a customer creates a data center, or a complex of data centers, that conforms to the NIST definitions discussed herein then it can rightly be called a “Private Cloud”. Be cautious here, however. Remember the term “CloudWashing” as defined above. Just because a customer has a large number of computers in a data center does not make that a Private Cloud no matter how vehemently they insist on calling it one.

Although there is no requirement for the architecture of Public and Private Clouds to be the same most companies agree that compatibility between them would be helpful to support CloudBursting. That is, the ability to move applications and data freely between the data center and the Public Cloud. (See the discussion on Hybrid Cloud below.)

A Community Cloud is a variation of a Public Cloud that restricts its clientele to a specific community of users. For instance, there are Community Clouds for Government and Education as well as for other communities. Each of these may have different levels of security and compliance requirements or other unique characteristics. The NIST document does state that it may be operated for the community by one of the companies in it, however, it is typically operated by a Public Cloud vendor using a walled-off subset of it resources.

A Hybrid Cloud is typically formed by the integration of two or more Public and/or Private Clouds. In the typical case a company utilizes both a Public Cloud and resources in their own data center structured as a private cloud with strong networking integration between them.

A high degree of standardization between them is desirable in order to make it possible to distribute resources across them or to load balance or cloudburst resources between them. This is often done for security and compliance reasons where a company feels that some data and/or processing must remain behind their own firewall, while other data and/or processing can take advantage of a Public Cloud.

In the case of Microsoft technology there is one example where compatibility will be extremely high and advantageous. I expect the Private Cloud space to be dominated, at least in data centers utilizing Microsoft technology, by the new Azure Stack appliance coming out this summer from 5 initial vendors. Make no mistake about it. Azure Stack is Azure running in your own data center. In effect Azure stack is pretty much like Just another Azure Region  (JAAR?) to the Public Azure Cloud. Having that high degree of compatibility will help facilitate the Hybrid Cloud architecture discussed above. I have already blogged about Azure Stack and why I feel that it is so important so I will not go into that in detail here. See this bog post: The Future of Azure is Azure Stack.

We also should distinguish between true Hybrid Cloud and an IT Hybrid Infrastructure In the case of the latter the resources in the data center need not be in the form of a Private Cloud as discussed above. Microsoft is the clear leader in this space now because of its traditional enterprise data center presence and it’s leadership in converting itself to be a Cloud Company.

So, don’t be fooled by Cloud Pretenders. Apply the NIST litmus test.

Bill Zack

About CloudyInNashville

I am a Cloud Architect and Consultant. Over several years I have been working with companies to help them design and build .NET based applications for public and private clouds. My focus is the Cloud, Public Clouds and Microsoft's Windows Azure Cloud platform in particular.
This entry was posted in Architecture, Cloud, Cloud Computing, Windows Azure and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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