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Don’t get locked into the cloud

September 14, 2010 • Opinion

Cloud computing offers businesses flexibility and scalability at an attractive price. Unless you make the wrong decisions.

If you run a business chances are you already run part of your business “in the cloud”. And if you don’t then you will, in the very near future.

The growth of cloud computing – or Internet-based applications and services – is becoming so pervasive that analysts such as Gartner expect as many as 20% of businesses to rid themselves entirely of their IT assets by 2012 and rely solely on The Cloud.

Even if you’re not moving into the cloud yet, it’s becoming increasingly important that you consider the pros and cons of cloud computing, now.

Cloud computing – which encompasses both internal and external cloud environments – changes the IT game, entirely. The current trend is away from investments in expensive hardware and software to manage your business and towards services and infrastructure provided through the web; services that can be scaled, added to or upgraded as and when your business needs it.

Cloud computing means that it is simple to add more power to your infrastructure to cope with peak periods or general growth and scale back when you don’t. And even if you host your own on-site virtualisation environment it means that adding another server to your existing setup to cope with additional demands is just a click away.

It’s a compelling value proposition, except for one thing. When you hand over your processes and data to a cloud service provider, or invest in virtualisation software, are you also handing over control of your business processes to a third party?

What happens if your needs change? If you’re unhappy with the service being offered? Or you just need to move your business elsewhere for cost considerations? Can you do this? How easy would it be to do it? Or will you be locked in to a relationship that is expensive to get out of?

Flexibility

The primary value of investing in cloud services and virtualisation is for the flexibility it offers. This flexibility, however, needs to extend beyond simply being able to increase capacity and capabilities. It needs to include the ability to move between services, manage applications on multiple platforms and retain control over your data.

Which is why open standards and open source software are still key considerations in the world of cloud computing. And choosing a provider that offers a service without limiting your options as well as a service that spans multiple platforms is key for your business’ future.

Not all of the cloud service providers currently offer services that fit this bill. Many will restrict you to one platform, or wrap your data up proprietary formats that will make it near on impossible to move away from them, except at great cost.

Cross-platform

So, when making a decision on your cloud infrastructure consider these two issues: Does your chosen service or provider work across platforms, or are you restricted one environment? Open source and open standards like those provided by Linux developers such as Red Hat ensure that your future is flexible. With open standards-based virtualisation you’re not locked into a single environment and your infrastructure is able to grow with the business.

The other consideration is whether your business is able to access a range of different cloud services using the software you use. Cloud infrastructure is not homogeneous. Part of your business may run on Amazon EC2, another part on an internal private cloud running on Red Hat Enterprise Linux and a third in a Windows environment. Managing all of these environments through a common interface, or API, such as DeltaCloud, is important in ensuring that your cloud networks are integrated. Software such as Red Hat and others that support the likes of DeltaCloud ensure present and future flexibility.

While Gartner predicts that many companies will move their entire infrastructure into the cloud, there are many organisations that will not. They will likely get rid of just part of their IT assets and move the balance into the cloud. The result will be a mix of internal private cloud and external cloud investments. On top of that the underlying hardware and software will very likely be from a range of providers, the result of previous investments. Instead of throwing out everything and being forced to start again, businesses need to work with vendors that allow them put these assets to work irrespective of where they come from.

Interoperability is key to maximising the potential of virtualisation and cloud computing. Red Hat’s Cloud Foundations, for example, allow enterprises to build internal clouds using their choice of virtualisation software and hardware, and manage applications on both these and public cloud environments through a common set of management tools.

It’s these kinds of capabilities – open standards, flexibility, interoperability – that make cloud computing a viable and attractive opportunity for businesses. Without these, your business could simply be locking away its assets in a private, inflexible cloud from which you could find it hard to extricate yourself.

By Muggie van Staden, MD of Obsidian Systems

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