There are few computing topics today as promising -- and confusing -- as cloud computing. In fact, many IT professionals cannot even define "the cloud" without shifting uncomfortably in their seats. But no matter how vendors spin the term or position their offerings for a skeptical and budget-conscious marketplace, it's clear that the shift to utility computing is gaining traction.
In a recent TechTarget survey, over 30% of IT professionals indicated that they have adopted some type of cloud architecture, or will make the move within the coming 12 months. As early adopters wrestle with the risks of a public cloud or contemplate the investment in a private cloud, the remainder of the industry is left to ask the questions; why adopt the cloud, and how will it impact my Windows Server environment?
Trends in cloud computing
Any move to a private or public cloud first starts with a careful examination of business need, and there are numerous factors that drive organizations toward a cloud architecture.
Let's start with a private cloud where an organization will generally own the hardware and software involved (or lease those specific computing resources). Almost 35% of survey respondents choose a private cloud to preserve their existing infrastructure investment, while another 17% see the private cloud as a vehicle for disaster recovery and business continuity. More than 14% of survey respondents select the private cloud for increased security, and almost 12% want self-service and automation of computing resources in the enterprise.
Industry experts offer slightly more pragmatic views, citing cost and business-related issues as the principal drivers. "It's more business and process than anything else," said James Staten, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research. "The driver to cloud in general is faster time to market and more self-service for developers."
It's interesting to note that security ranked high among survey respondents interested in the private cloud. In fact, 39% of IT professionals that are not contemplating cloud computing cite security as the single biggest factor keeping them away. But experts point out that private clouds are not inherently more secure than public clouds. The main advantage in a private setting is that an IT department owns or otherwise controls the cloud infrastructure and can implement security that is tailored to the organization's particular needs. That level of control simply isn't available in a public cloud.
The factors that drive users to consider a public cloud are noticeably different then those for private clouds, reflecting a more general desire to shift costs, reduce staff and shed infrastructure (rather than preserve it) while maintaining computing scalability. More than 31% of survey respondents consider public cloud computing in order to reduce infrastructure costs, and another 26% look for greater cost flexibility than that of traditional hosted services. About 20% of IT professionals want the scalability of utility computing without the up-front costs incurred with infrastructure purchases and deployments, and 11% seek to reduce IT staff costs. "It's the whole thought of utilizing a utility model of computing, moving capital expenditures to operational expenditures," said Phil Cox, principal consultant at SystemExperts Corporation.
Adopters are putting a huge variety of different applications in the cloud. Survey respondents indicated that test and development (58%), web application hosting (53%), email (45%) and disaster recovery (35%) are the top four categories of applications put into a cloud, though experts note that almost any type of application can work well. "The cloud providers are getting to the point where the infrastructure they have can support databases and all this stuff," Cox said.
However, while almost any application should work in today's cloud environment, it's the cyclical applications -- or those where the processing load varies dynamically or transiently -- that will benefit the most from the "elasticity" of a utility computing model.
Microsoft Azure and Windows environments
So what does all this mean for Windows Server environments? Public clouds are proliferating from a host of major providers including Amazon Web Services, Rackspace, GoGrid, Terremark, Microsoft, Google, Softlayer Technologies and Hosting.com. In addition, there is a growing list of MSPs that have ambitions in the Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) business. Similarly, organizations that elect to maintain their infrastructure can phase in private clouds to meet their changing business needs using solutions like Microsoft's Dynamic Infrastructure Toolkit.
This offers organizations many competitive options for deploying applications that can take advantage of utility computing. Still, moving any application to a cloud is not a simple choice -- it takes a strong business case for the application, solid cost justification in the cloud solution, and a reliable security posture for business data. In the case of a public cloud provider, a solid track record of longevity should also be considered.
"I think Amazon's got a foot up in that they've been around [as a cloud provider] the longest," Cox said. "I think Azure is coming on strong because it's got Microsoft pushing it."
The recently announced Windows Azure Appliance (dubbed "Azure-in-a-box") is an interesting move for Microsoft, but it's only a fit for today's largest enterprises that can justify a Windows Azure private cloud. Windows-based data centers that need a private cloud can turn to Microsoft's Dynamic Infrastructure Toolkit or wait for Microsoft to release an alternative private cloud offering at some point in the future. Cox suggests this might happen. "Why will they do that? Because big customers are going to want it and they'll pay for it."
Expect to see Windows systems management continue to evolve with Microsoft System Center as well. Microsoft is investing heavily in their Windows management platform and bringing features together under that single interface. Staten hopes that this will eventually lead to a more seamless management of cloud and non-cloud application deployments, though more work will undoubtedly be required as cloud technologies continue to make inroads into Windows organizations.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Stephen J. Bigelow, senior features writer, has more than 15 years of technical writing experience in the PC/technology industry. He holds a BSEE, CompTIA A+, Network+, Security+ and Server+ certifications and has written hundreds of articles and more than 15 feature books on computer troubleshooting. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.