A profound change in the way we think about and ultimately manage enterprise IT is well underway. Unfortunately, the real significance of these changes in terms of the impact they have on IT and the business world is obscured by a raft of catch phrases and buzzwords.
Those terms range from the ubiquitous "cloud computing" marketing slogan to the even more opaque "data center convergence" moniker. But if you take a giant step back from all the marketing terminology, what we're actually witnessing is nothing short of the reinvention of enterprise IT.
During a recent online summit that can be viewed here, industry experts such as Anil Karmel, solutions architect for Los Alamos National Labs, Harkeeret Singh, global head of energy optimization for Thomson Reuters, and Jeff Tobolski, director of infrastructure research and development for Accenture Technology Labs, explained how the management of data centers will be transformed in the age of cloud computing in a way that not only reduce costs, but also increases IT agility.
As noted during one summit session led by Zen Kishimoto, a principal analyst with AltaTerra Research Network, there are multiple variants of cloud computing. The most common reference to cloud computing is known as the public cloud, which essentially means running application workloads on shared IT infrastructure that is managed by a third party. The best known of these services are EC2 from Amazon and a variety of software-as-a-service (SaaS) applications such as Salesforce.com. But there are already hundreds of cloud service providers and we're rapidly entering a phase of overcapacity in the public cloud that sets the stage for a price war among the providers of these services.
A second type of cloud computing is known as private cloud computing. At its core, a private cloud refers to an internal IT organization leveraging virtualization technologies in order to share physical IT infrastructure across multiple applications. Accomplishing this generally requires new tools to manage the IT environment and in some instances may even require next-generation integrated servers.
The core argument for investing in a private cloud is that an internal IT organization can deliver all the benefits of "cloud computing" in a more secure way that it gives a company more control over its IT environment.
If the only two options were to run application workloads on internal or external IT environments than cloud computing would essentially be little more than a glorified form of outsourcing. Where things start to get a little more complex is when the concept of "virtual data centers" is added the cloud computing discussion.
A "virtual data center" is a logical set of IT assets that are deployed on top of virtual machines. Because these assets leverage virtual machines, they can run in either a public or private cloud computing environment. In a public cloud computing environment, a virtual data center gives a company the security benefits of a private cloud without having to invest in acquiring its own IT infrastructure. In effect, a virtual data center renders a lot of the debate over public versus private cloud infrastructure moot.
But just to make matters more interesting, there is this notion of "hybrid cloud computing," under which application workloads will dynamically move across public and private cloud computing infrastructure. While some are skeptical of this model, and in some cases the need for dedicated private cloud infrastructure on a customer's premise at all, others argue that an extended transition to cloud computing is going to require some form of a hybrid approach. Conversely, some proponents of private cloud computing argue that public cloud infrastructure is going to be little more than an extension of the internal enterprise IT. As such, public and private cloud computing platforms need to be holistically managed using a common systems management framework.
Regardless of how you feel about cloud computing, one thing that is for certain is that the way we think about managing IT is changing. It used to be that each server, network and storage element of the data center required separate management tools.
But in the last year we've seen the rise of comprehensive management frameworks, such as Oracle Enterprise Manager, which not only automate routine IT management tasks but also allow fewer IT people to manage larger sets of servers, networks and storage resources as one logical entity. This translates into a reduction in the number of tools and IT personnel required to manage the data center environment, as well as an overall IT environment that is easier to manage and more responsive to changing business conditions. This overall trend, sometimes referred to as "data center convergence" is altering the IT landscape as vendors vie for dominance over the data center as whole, versus simply concentrating on a particular server, network or storage specialty.
The goals for cloud computing and data center convergence are essentially one in the same. On the one hand, we're trying to reduce the cost of IT. On the other, we're also trying to make IT more flexible with the expectation that if enterprise IT is easier to deploy and manage, customers will derive more value from it. And if customers get more value from their IT, it stands to reason they will want to invest more in order to run additional applications that add real and immediate value to their business.
But like all things worth doing, it will take years to get enterprise IT from the rigid place it is today to this new agile IT nirvana. The challenge for many IT organizations is going to be not getting lost in all the hype in order to keep their eyes on the real IT prize. But when all is said and finally done, the companies that effectively master cloud computing first are going to have a sustainable competitive business edge over rivals for years to come.
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