For the past 20 years, when IT professionals went to the white board to draw a network architecture or topology, often either the network centre or a complex sub-component within the network was drawn as a nebulous cloud.
The devices, systems and technology in that cloud were not specifically relevant to the discussion and neither was the location of components, but its presence was significant and an important part of the whole picture.
Fast forward to today. The nebulous cloud has become real: It exists in the hearts and minds of marketing people, it appears on the cover of technology publications and it gives rise to countless seminars and conferences. However, it is still discussed in nebulous and abstract terms, suggesting it is perceived as something distant, still visionary and even metaphysical.
Since the terminology describing Cloud might still appear to be owned by Marketing, is the Cloud tangible and real? Is it truly a platform that can provide elastic capacity for IT organisations globally? Can it enable IT to respond to unpredicted spikes in demand? And probably more important for IT professionals, is it a step towards the marginalisation of the value of IT?
Clear away the hype, and the Cloud is very real. It represents a tangible opportunity for IT to create a more flexible and agile set of services for their user community. It allows IT people to align investment to the scale of their organisation, and it permits IT to evolve to a new level of relationship with the business. This represents a new opportunity for the seat that IT occupies at the executive table.
For those whose IT careers span more than 10 years, the promise of such a seat as an enabling and empowering team member as opposed to a ‘cost centre’, has borne many repetitions. Yet Cloud-based solutions and architectures do provide an environment that allows IT to respond and react to the needs of their business partners, and in some cases, IT can lead the business with new compelling services.
The Cloud allows services to be offered rapidly and pervasively as we see the provisioning approach of the past, with capital acquisition, hardware deployment, system configuration and then the system ‘rollout’, being replaced systematically by provisioning through an ‘interface’ rather than a ‘screwdriver’. The Cloud allows for costs to be aligned to demand, because resources that would once have demanded capital outlay, depreciation and on-going maintenance, can be replaced by pay-as-you-go resources. All IT needs is a server with quad-cores, a stack of memory and attached storage to run a simulation or application for an hour, a day, a week or a year.
Cloud-based services provide the ability to provision — and pay — for what users want and use. Hundreds of pay-as-you-go Cloud-based service providers are available at the click of a mouse. This is possibly a next major phase in the move towards ’IT as a utility’ that was the buzz a few years back. The Cloud can also enable IT to offer new services and applications without increasing the complexity of the infrastructure for both the IT organisation and the user community.
So it is here, where the value of the Cloud becomes clear, that the marketing of ‘the Cloud’ needs to move aside and the reality of technologists’ needs to take over.
‘The Cloud’ has been separated into three different forms: Private, public and a combination of the two, hybrid. In its most basic form, the private Cloud is created by deploying virtualisation solutions within existing data centres; while the public Cloud is formed through the utilisation of infrastructure, platforms and applications that are delivered from third-party ‘hosting’ or ‘co-location’ service providers.
Although, with the deployment of virtualisation in enterprise data centres clearly moving past the early adoption phase and well and truly into the mainstream, the migration from physical to virtual infrastructure is not a ‘flip of the switch’ transition which provides one of the catalysts driving an evolution for the role of IT.
Designing, deploying, managing, monitoring and securing the Cloud — the virtual world — requires a very different approach to the one used successfully in the physical world. No longer is an application static on one server and connected to one network port. Now the application is mobile; it is co-resident with many other applications, and the traffic it generates can appear on any number of network ports as the virtual application moves between physical servers.
IT needs to evolve its approach to delivering and maintaining services in this new world. Does this mean that IT’s role is being abstracted or marginalised? Certainly not. The virtual world’s infrastructure, created through the combination of application mobility, environment scale and provisioning flexibility, has resulted in a need for IT to change its approach. Traditional physical IT skills are important, but with the physical devices being effectively commoditised through virtualisation, the focus for IT is turning towards the most valuable asset within the new Cloud-enabled environment — the information.
Fundamentally, an organisation’s value is associated with the information, the data and the traffic within that environment rather than the devices or components comprising the infrastructure. With the private Cloud allowing applications to become mobile, and the public Cloud offering applications and services from outside of the enterprise’s ‘four walls’, tomorrow’s IT organisation is turning its attention towards the traffic that flows to, from and across the infrastructure and the Cloud.
As a business drives its IT department to deliver on the promise of ‘agile IT’, the adoption of Cloud-based applications and services to meet this demand is causing IT to consider carefully how to maintain visibility to the 'information in motion' within their environment. What was once static is now mobile, and what was once within the footprint of the private and physical data centre is now potentially in the public Cloud.
So does intelligent visibility to the traffic and information represent the next evolution of management and monitoring for IT? Possibly. Regardless, it is clear that the world of IT has changed significantly. The value that IT brings to an organisation is potentially far higher and the expectations that the business places on the IT team. This is the organisational revolution that the Cloud evolution has created. It offers new opportunities for IT and as technologists (rather than marketers) become the masters of the Cloud we all, as users of IT applications in our personal and professional lives, stand to benefit significantly.
So, far from the Cloud representing a step towards the marginalisation of the value of IT, the reality is exactly the opposite.
Paul Hooper is vice-president marketing for Gigamon.