Understand the cloud ecosystem

How the cloud works and interacts with other technology as an IT “community” can be confusing, unless you read John Lamb’s jargon buster

When two Help for Heroes websites crashed under the weight of traffic following the murder of soldier Lee Rigby in the streets of London, the charity turned to the cloud to make sure it did not happen again.

“Before that I was a bit of a sceptic about the cloud,” admits Charles Bikhazi, head of IT development at Help for Heroes. “But the move was forced upon us by events – we needed to be able to handle these spikes in demand.”

As cloud services move into the mainstream, companies ranging from the giant Coca-Cola down to the small, corner restaurant are looking to the web to deliver their information and communications technology (ICT). Although most avoid Help for Heroes’ crash course in technology, many struggle to make informed decisions about the cloud.

Marketing hype and the absence of reliable, independent analysis make it difficult for hard-pressed managers to understand an ecosystem in which nearly every ICT function from servers and storage to application software and telecommunications has its cloud equivalent.

Underlying the services is a bitter commercial struggle involving suppliers that only operate in the cloud and established firms juggling their cloud offerings with older products developed for use “on-premise”.

The industry has created an alphabet soup of jargon to describe its technology

The competition has led to keener prices for some cloud products, although comparing services is complicated by the large number of suppliers and the many different ways they have of presenting and charging for their wares.

For example, providers are not above making cloud buyers pay for resources that they do not need. Organisations may be asked to buy extra disc storage and processor power in order to get the amount of main memory they require.

“Many of these problems stem from [services] that were designed around legacy architectures, which is why we see such dramatic performance and cost differences among providers,” claims a study, from cloud company Profitbricks, called The Secret World of Cloud Integration-as-a-Service Pricing.

The industry has created an alphabet soup of jargon to describe its technology. At the top floats Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), the longest established cloud service. In SaaS, software solutions and associated data are held centrally by one or more suppliers and can be accessed by their customers through any PC with a web browser.

Common business applications – e-mail, human resources management, customer relationship management and accounting – are available as a service from well-known names such as Salesforce, Microsoft and Google. Instead of laying out for a single licence, customers pay monthly for each user, sometimes according to how much time users actually spend on the service.

Although SaaS is the largest market for cloud computing at present, in the longer term Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) is likely to be a more important sector.

PaaS is aimed at business managers who want to develop and adapt their own applications. Suppliers provide both the hardware and operating systems for running applications, and the tools for developing them. The tools are usually presented as an application stack.

The advantage of PaaS is it makes it much easier to develop new business processes without involving IT experts. Off-the-shelf services enable managers to develop and adapt business applications without incurring high costs and long lead times.

The business of loading up a server with systems, data and software, known as provisioning, is faster in the cloud. End-users are able to select and remove cloud services by themselves. Indeed, many services include software that adds additional resources automatically.

Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) is the third main category of cloud service. It is aimed at organisations that want to reduce the amount of money they spend on buying, hosting and supporting their computer servers.

IaaS providers offer computing power on a rental model that IT departments can access instead of buying their own servers and running the risk of having too much or too little capacity. Organisations access virtual machines created within suppliers’ datacentres.

A price war has already broken out between major players, such as Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud. In April, Microsoft cut the price of renting virtual machines by up to a third in order to match earlier reductions by Amazon. Not to be outdone, Google has followed suit.

Recent tests of the performance of virtual servers on Amazon EC2, Google Compute Engine, and Microsoft Windows Azure, carried out by InfoWorld magazine, put Google ahead in terms of speed and cost, closely followed by Azure. But that pecking order is likely to change as the suppliers jockey for position.

Amazon and Google’s public cloud services have grown out of the huge server capacity the companies built up to run their own businesses. Microsoft on the other hand is a relative newcomer and has adopted a hybrid strategy with Azure mixing private and public cloud.

There are growing pains. Some service providers suffered outages last year, but that seems unlikely to dent the growth of a business that now sees Amazon installing more server capacity each day than its entire business required to run a decade ago.

Few organisations of any size have moved their ICT entirely to the cloud; most manage a mixture of existing software and hardware on their premises together with new cloud services.

They must also choose between buying public cloud services that are shared with other users and building their own private cloud. Many users opt for a hybrid approach, running a mixture of public and private cloud services.

For example, Help for Heroes is keeping its all-important database of donors in-house for the moment and relies on its cloud supplier Rackspace to provide additional computing power when needed.

However, in future Mr Bikhazi is looking to expand Help for Heroes’ use of the cloud. Projects include introducing cloud-based customer relationship management and adopting Microsoft’s Azure, which provides both IaaS and PaaS resources.

Help for Heroes will also take advantage of the free access to Office 365, the SaaS that Microsoft offers to not-for-profit organisations to run e-mail and PowerPoint applications online.

Managing a transition like this can be tricky. “Businesses can find themselves cobbling together end-to-end processes as a result,” says Jez Back, cloud expert at management consultancy Deloitte UK.

Recently, cloud brokers have set up shop to aid the process. Brokers combine technology, consulting and buying power. They act as middlemen between business users and cloud suppliers, putting together packages of services.

Security remains one of the hottest issues for cloud users. National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations about the extent of covert data gathering by security services in the United States and the UK have undoubtedly affected corporate attitudes to the security of cloud computing.

Around two thirds of organisations not currently using cloud feel the revelations have prevented them from moving their ICT into the cloud, according to the NSA After-shocks survey by the Japanese communications company NTT.

Many are looking for reassurance about where their data will be stored in increasingly global networks of cloud datacentres.

But looking ahead the cloud is likely to provide fewer shocks. It will become more transparent as suppliers fine tune their services and terms of business. Meanwhile, customers will buy with a greater certainty of what they will be getting.