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Defining the essential characteristics of the cloud May 8, 2012

Posted by Sapna Sumanth in Cloud Computing.
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Separating cloud computing from marketing hype and dealing with popular misconceptions

The term “cloud” in the very basic terms can be thought of as a virtual hard disk which is accessible to a network of computers. Here different services are hosted over the internet, which are shared among different users. There are three main services namely:

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

Infrastructure-as-a-Service: Providing the infrastructure or the hardware resources such as storage devices, Servers, network components etc. as a service is known as IaaS. Organization may choose to make use of IaaS from various service providers rather than having their own dedicated hardware resources. The advantages include less maintenance of resources as the resources are deployed in an organized way over the cloud, it allows IT to shift focus and concentrate on other key areas like innovations in application solutions, fast delivery of products etc., it minimizes cost which is highly beneficial for small and medium sized organizations, it provides dynamic scalability/elasticity, where services can be scaled up and down according to the usage requirements/demands. This aids in optimal utilization of resources and leads to conservation of resources and cost savings. IaaS also enables green IT, with optimal utilization of resources which has reduced effect on the Reduced environment.

Platform-as-a-Service: Here the resources such as development tools, required for application development are provided as PaaS, using which developers can develop software products and deploy them faster. According to Wikipedia, “PaaS offerings facilitate the deployment of applications without the cost and complexity of buying and managing the underlying hardware and software and provisioning hosting capabilities,providing all of the facilities required to support the complete life cycle of building and delivering web applications and services entirely available from the Internet”. It provides the infrastructure/resources needed for application design, development, testing ,deployment, hosting applications etc. over the Internet in an integrated development environment. The benefits include cost savings as the resources are provided as a service rather than buying them entirely. These services are provided as “Pay as you go” model. As with IaaS, even PaaS allows IT to shift focus and concentrate on primary goals like innovations in application solutions, fast delivery of products etc. rather than worrying about the infrastructure. Also another big advantage with PaaS is that developers from different geographical locations can collaborate and work together, on the same project. With the robust application development environment, it enables the developers to keep up with the increasing demand for a high turnaround time.

Software-as-a-Service: Delivering software applications over the web and charging the users on per-subscription basis or on usage basis etc. Hence instead of having proprietary software applications which requires upfront expenses, the organizations/users can make use of such a service, where they can rent the software. This lowers IT costs and time, in terms of not having to buy software licenses or additional infrastructure and also since the software is readily available, the deployment is faster and eliminates implementation tasks associated with the software such as installation, keeping up with upgrades etc. And as with IaaS and PaaS, SaaS allows IT to shift focus and concentrate on other key areas. Among the many applications offered as SaaS are Business applications, software development tools, E-mail applications etc. It can observed that PaaS is an outgrowth of SaaS. SaaS is more abstract compared to PaaS. PaaS is more about making use of development tools to build software to a particular platform.

Essential characteristics of cloud computing

1. On-demand self-service: The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) defines cloud computing broadly as “a model for enabling convenient, on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources (for example, networks, servers, storage, applications, and services) that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort or service provider interaction.” On-demand self-service is basically allowing the users to configure their systems or computing capabilities such as setting server time or network storage as and when needed, to use cloud services without having to interact or take assistance from the cloud provider. It allows the users to have self service access and configuration capabilities which aids in cost saving as the need for IT administrators are none or limited. Also it helps in saving time, faster deployment etc.

2. Broad network access: It means that resources accessed via the cloud should be made available from anywhere and to all standardized computing platforms and devices such as desktops, laptops, mobiles etc. This way the consumers can access the resources over the network which is different compared to traditional way of installing the software on a particular device and not being able to access it when away from it, which can be frustrating.  Hence computing resources are delivered over the network to heterogeneous devices.

3. Resource pooling: The main idea of the cloud is to provide computing resources to users who can rent them and thereby they need not have to buy their own infrastructure and maintain it. This is highly cost effective for end users who prefer to rent the resources from the cloud providers. On the other hand, the cloud providers make sure the resources are available to users who have paid for it and they make money out of it. Hence it’s a win-win situation, where clients get computing resources when they need and the providers get paid by them. On the providers end, they need to make sure they have enough resources pooled to serve the consumers by making use of multi-tenant architecture, maintain the resources, perform updates, provide availability, scalability(upscale and downscale resources dynamically) and so on. Since the providers will be taking care of all these, the users simply have to pay in order to use the resources.

4. Scalability & Elasticity: Cloud services can scale the capacity up or down elastically, based on the usage demands of the user, by adding or removing resources as needed. Thus Elasticity enables scalability, wherein the cloud can upscale during peak demand and downscale during lighter demand. Scalability is beneficial to users as they only pay according to their usage and lowers the IT costs.

5. Measured service: Since the cloud operates on the basis of “Pay as you go” model, the service offered can be measured and the consumers pay for how much they use the service. “Cloud computing resource usage can be measured, controlled, and reported providing transparency for both the provider and consumer of the utilized service”. This goes hand in hand with Elasticity. More the usage more will be the bill and vice-versa.

Some of the Popular Misconceptions

1. One size fits all: The cloud serves different consumers who may have unique business needs. Each organization’s IT needs is different from the others. Hence it is not logical to think that cloud is One size fits all. Cloud creates an ecosystem of choice. Cloud provides opportunity to users to customize solutions, processes and can meet different industry standards and requirements. It allows users to easily configure systems, tools, applications and so on.

2. Cloud is virtualization: Cloud is commonly thought as being fully associated with the concept of virtualization and people connect virtualization technology with cloud, which is not true. According to Wikipedia, “In a multi tenancy environment, multiple customers share the same application, running on the same operating system, on the same hardware, with the same data-storage mechanism. The distinction between the customers is achieved during application design, thus customers do not share or see each other’s data. Compare this with virtualization where components are abstracted enabling each customer application to appear to run on a separate physical machine”. Virtualization is just a multi-tenancy strategy. Hence not all clouds use virtualization.

3. Cloud is inexpensive: Consumers make use of cloud by renting the resources because they find it more affordable compared to buying them. In terms of cost saving, it works great for small and medium sized businesses as they need not have to worry about investment in IT infrastructure, systems integration, project management, managing IT resources, software installations, initializing environments and database configurations and so on. They can enjoy the benefits of global business solutions at affordable cost. Also in order for the businesses to keep up with the latest technologies cloud can be affordable instead of buying them often. However as the businesses grow cloud can become expensive to the point where it might be a good idea to own the resources instead of renting them. So cloud can prove to be expensive or inexpensive based on the needs of each business.

4. The cloud is risky: Although cloud computing can offer businesses significant cost-savings namely, pay per use, access to sophisticated software and powerful hardware, the service does come with certain security risks. Data leakage has become a big risk from the security standpoint.  In private clouds, the customers have direct control over the whole infrastructure, in turn control of the data. But when moving to a public cloud, the customer’s data will be stored away from the customer’s local machine, and secondly, the data is moving from a single-tenant to a multi-tenant environment, where there is higher risk of data being exposed. For example a software bug or system malfunction gives access to a user of another system on the same shared infrastructure, or maliciously, when someone exploits some weakness in the architecture to gain illicit access to data. However account and service hijacking has been around since the inception of internet. Some of the methods include phishing, fraud, and exploitation of software vulnerabilities. Often credentials and passwords are reused which amplifies the impact of such attacks. After considering some of the risks & threats posed by the cloud computing environment, it is also very important to understand that there are many ways by which  these threats can be mitigated. Some of the ways are encrypting all sensitive data, making use of cryptographic methods, ensuring the firewall, IPS & DPS protect the VM’s separately, taking security counter measures for e.g. purging residual data from instance resources before they are re-allocated, monitoring privileged users, checking the background and logging activities of these users, conduct post-evaluations periodically to reassess the risk so that we can counter new vulnerabilities and new threats that have emerged, employ proactive monitoring to detect unauthorized activity, usage of digital signatures, understanding cloud provider security policies and SLAs etc. Hence it’s clear that these risks are in the cloud are addressable.

5. Cloud computing may result in IT job cuts: It might be true to certain extent that the cloud may lessen the need for huge IT staff. But on the other hand, cloud computing is also creating new jobs. The companies who migrate to using cloud, may reduce their staff but the companies who provide cloud services will open up new jobs as they expand. They will require more man power to manage their data centers and services, in which case the job roles would be more or less similar for those who were let go. Also, we all know that change is the only constant. Technology becomes obsolete with the introduction & success of new technology and it doesn’t mean that everyone will lose their jobs when this happens. The skills needed by IT workers will be constantly changing. So people need to keep up with the technology in order to move forward and also the companies need to encourage training programs for their employees. There has been a 62% annual increase in cloud computing-related jobs. Cloud Computing will generate some 14 million new jobs worldwide by 2015,  India alone will create over 2 million and 1.1 million U.S. jobs,  predicts a study commissioned by Microsoft and conducted by International Data Corporation(IDC). Hence cloud computing can be thought of as IT job generator rather than thinking it as a treat.

Cloud computing is new in terms of providing computing resources as a service and scaling of resources dynamically with increasing or decreasing demand and the users paying according to the usage. These characteristics set the concept of cloud apart. As a technology, the concept dates back to the time when internet became mainstream and it incorporates derivations of ideas that have been in use for some time. There were mainframes, client-server architectures, 3-tier web architectures and now there is this next major wave in IT which is Cloud Architecture. “If marketing tricks us into believing that it is new, so what? What matters is that the trend and phrase have caught on and that we are going to see a change in the way we will use computers and other connected devices in the future. And if you think about it, this change is substantial and it is likely to stick with us for a long time.” The idea of offering resources as services to end users is definitely new. Cloud computing is a revolution in the way the IT operates and in how the IT budget is spent.

“For the first time software is going to enable compute and storage platforms to be easily sliced, diced, and aggregated, taking standard, commodity hardware platforms and delivering IT value, by ensuring never before levels of scalability, flexibility, and efficiency. Its a style of Computing where scalable and elastic IT capabilities are provided as a service to multiple customers using Internet technologies. The service can be delivered over the internet as a public/external service or consumed over the intranet as a private/internal service.”

Looking back at the history of IT, there are models similar to cloud computing. But setting them on an equal level to what cloud computing is today, would be improper, especially with cloud computing having substantial newer trends and providing newer opportunities. “Today’s cloud computing idea goes far beyond the idea of anything that was cloud-related until a few years ago. It is stunning to see how much the consumer perception of renting services has changed.”

“The real benefit from cloud storage comes when applications take advantage of its compelling distribution, collaboration, and programmability capabilities. The entire storage industry is moving toward greater levels of application awareness and integration.” The characteristics that distinguish cloud from traditional hosting is that, it’s an on demand service, it is elastic and the service is fully managed by the provider and also it extends the IT capabilities. Cloud is also more sophisticated and technically advanced than the traditional hosting mechanisms.

According to Stephen foskett, Nirvanix Director of Consulting, cloud storage goes further in terms of application integration and programmability. Vendors have added many features, from replication to indexing to media transcoding, each of which can be called by applications through custom APIs. Cloud storage also leverages the openness of the Internet and modern programming concepts, incorporating the Internet Protocol (IP), HTTP, SSL, REST, and SOAP. the real benefit from cloud storage comes when applications take advantage of its compelling distribution, collaboration, and programmability capabilities. The entire storage industry is moving toward greater levels of application awareness and integration. With the emergence of cloud computing, more and more businesses are moving to cloud. According to a survey about cloud adoption, 49 percent of the small businesses are expected to signup to at least one cloud service over the next three years.

Resources:

1. http://searchcloudcomputing.techtarget.com/definition/cloud-computing

2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cloud_computing

3. http://www.tomshardware.com/news/cloud-computing-online-networks,11203.html

4.http://www.siliconindia.com/guestcontributor/guestarticle/128/Cloud_Computing_Cloud_Storage_Are_There_Clouds_In_Your_Future_Sajai_Krish.html

5. http://csrc.nist.gov/nice/states/maryland/posters/cloud-computing.pdf

6. http://www.oracle.com/us/technologies/cloud/oracle-cloud-computing-wp-076373.pdf

7. http://www.infoworld.com/d/cloud-computing/what-cloud-computing-really-means-031?page=0,1

8. http://www.crn.com/slide-shows/cloud/229300600/cloud-connect-five-massive-cloud-computing-misconceptions.htm?pgno=1

9. http://www.maxclouderp.com/common-misconceptions-cloud-erp-software.html

10. http://www.networkworld.com/news/2010/05251-cloud-apps-misconceptions.html?page=4

11. http://www.cloudtweaks.com/2012/01/cloud-hiring-reaches-new-heights/

12. http://developer.nirvanix.com/blogs/strategies/archive/2009/06/19/what-makes-cloud-storage-different-from-traditional-san-and-nas.aspx

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