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Cloud Computing Prompts New IT Planning

Microsoft's announcement last week that it will offer a new software development platform for cloud computing added new energy to the debate over how and when organizations might begin turning to the technology.

Security concerns continue to fuel the belief that it will be years before companies consider trusting their information to remote, commercially operated datacenters. However, a variety of forces are accelerating strategy considerations for information technology officials and their contractors, according to cloud computing experts at a symposium in Washington, D.C. on Oct. 29.

One of those forces is the lure of potential cost savings. The lower costs associated with large-scale, shared computing infrastructure versus companies contracting to upgrade or centralize their own datacenters are hard to ignore.

Another factor is the growing scale and credibility of cloud computing operations run by Google, Amazon and Microsoft.

For IT leaders trying to plan for the future, the challenge is assessing how cloud computing might mesh with existing infrastructures, what types of information-processing activities would be best suited to it, and what bandwidth and security measures would be required to support it.

Organizations "need to think about how cloud computing will fit into their architecture," said Ron Markezich, corporate vice president of Microsoft Online.

One benefit of moving to cloud computing is that, by its nature, it offers a more service-oriented approach to enterprise architecture, said Dennis Quan, director of IBM's Software Group.

Jeff Barr, senior Web services evangelist at Amazon, agreed. "The cloud is really the opportunity to realize what the [service-oriented architecture] vision is meant to be," he said.

Drew Cohen, a vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton, which sponsored the symposium, said the path to cloud computing will take time and experimentation.

"We have a series of [mini cloud] pilots going on to understand what these offerings are," Cohen said. The testers concluded that the approach still involves extra work on top of existing systems, but it is a vital way to get buy-in for larger tests.

In a survey of 20 to 30 of its partners, Booz Allen concluded that organizations also need to begin testing at least one mission-critical system in the cloud, he said.

Understanding the Economics
As organizations begin considering cloud computing, most tend to think in terms of testing private clouds.

But Mike Bradshaw, president of Google Federal, said, "When you start building private clouds, you lose the efficiency" and the common engineering benefits that come with large-scale Internet-based computing systems.

Cloud computing is cost-effective for customers of Google and Amazon because the companies have already invested -- and continue to invest -- enormous sums to support their core computing operations, he said.

Bradshaw said Google is now the world's fourth largest server manufacturer, with vast numbers of servers assembled and attached with Velcro so they can be easily installed and replaced.

"Once people start looking at their own cloud, they're willing to pay more for it," he said, but the costs associated with maintaining private clouds begin to outweigh the benefits.

On the other hand, he said, "it's easy to start experimenting where you are just putting information out there for people to look at."

Security Risks
Another central facet of the cloud-computing debate is whether computing via the Internet is more prone to security risks or can actually offer greater assurance.

"We're running at such a large scale that it's a life-or-death issue for us," said Amazon's Barr. Everyone who has bought something through Amazon has put his or her personal information out in the cloud, he added.

The incentive for cloud providers is to get security to the point where customers are as willing to use their services as they are to trust their payroll information to ADT, he said.

"The economies of scale and the level of technical investment that you need to make" tend to ensure that a "cloud provider will have the investment and skills to do [security] better than most," Barr said.

Cohen said it's harder for hackers to get to the technology that supports cloud computing, adding that Google checks every transaction twice for potential problems.

Organizations with tens of thousands of employees often face worse vulnerabilities on their own systems, where patch management and other enterprisewide security measures remain a constant challenge, Farber added.

Nevertheless, concerns about where data resides remain a huge obstacle to cloud computing.

Markezich said Microsoft keeps all government data in the United States and has a third party audit its security controls. In addition, he said, Microsoft is building in encryption for data at rest so customers have the only keys to their data.

"If I was going to advise our [chief information officer], I'd tell him, 'Look at what the students are doing,'" said Michael Nelson, visiting professor of Internet studies at Georgetown University and a technology adviser to Barack Obama's presidential campaign.

Constrained by 100M accounts, Georgetown students had begun to abandon the university's e-mail system, forwarding accounts to Web-based Gmail and MSN Live instead. The university's solution is indicative of what many organizations are likely to consider in the near future. "We just recently facilitated e-mail in the cloud," Nelson said.

About the Author

Wyatt Kash is the editor in chief of Government Computer News (GCN.com).

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