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Why Your Datacenter Isn't a Private Cloud (and Why Maybe it Should Be)

  • For more on the cloud by Don Jones, see "Please Stop Saying 'Cloud'"

  • I'm not a big fan of the word "cloud," because it's largely overused and overloaded. When I started hearing "private cloud" being floated around, I thought enough is enough! How is a "private cloud" any different from what I've traditionally called my "local area network?" Why in the world did we need another term for it?

    Then I thought about it. Forget, for a moment, the overloaded use of the word "cloud," and think about the original concept of "cloud computing." I'm talking about services like Amazon's EC2 service, Microsoft's Azure service, or even SaaS offerings like These share a few very distinct characteristics:

    • You provision the services you need yourself, more or less on-demand. You don't have to wait for someone to set up new services for you.
    • You only pay for the services you actually need and are using, and you can get an accounting of that usage.
    • You don't have any real view of the physical infrastructure -- servers and so forth. You only see the services you're using.

    If those three characteristics are what set "cloud" apart from other "hosted services," then we're on to something when it comes to a "private cloud." Most corporate datacenters don't have all of these characteristics, and very few datacenters even have one of those characteristics. But think of the advantages you could get by having a datacenter that shared all three of those characteristics:

    Self-Service Provisioning
    This is becoming more and more popular inside companies, and with good reason: Self-service provisioning helps take IT out of the loop for common resource requests. No, you're not going to let just anyone in your company be a "self-service customer," but you can certainly authorize selected individuals. This might be as straightforward as a self-service Web portal that lets managers set up new employees and their Exchange mailboxes, or as complex as a portal that lets authorized managers spin up new virtual machines on an as-needed basis.

    IT still has to monitor this activity, because we still need to make sure there is sufficient physical infrastructure to support the self-provisioned resources, but IT doesn't need to be involved in the actual provisioning. Of course, this is only a viable plan if you also have...

    IT is viewed as overhead by most companies, and it's because there's often little tie-back to the business itself. That should change. Many companies already do chargebacks for things like e-mail, and that's a great first step. In an ideal world, every IT service would allocate its cost back to the business activity that is using it. That's difficult today, but the emergence of "private cloud" tools and technologies is aimed squarely at making chargebacks more efficient and practical.

    Think about it: Today, you probably wouldn't let line-of-business managers spin up new virtual machines on-demand through a self-service portal. Why? Because the cost of hosting, monitoring, and maintaining those things would quickly escalate out of control. But that's because today's line-of-business managers see IT as a basket of freebies. If they could self-provision VMs, and those VMs immediately showed up on the line of business' P&L statement, then those managers would make smarter decisions. Instead of IT saying, "no, that will cost too much," the business manager will say, "no, I can't afford that." It's no different than ordering desks, paperclips, or other physical goods.
    Of course, for the idea to be practical, you have to...

    Abstract the Infrastructure
    Essentially, you become a "hosting provider" within your own company. That is, you become a cloud computing provider to your own lines of business -- thus the term "private cloud." Nobody but IT needs to worry about the infrastructure -- they just "buy" services like user accounts, mailboxes, databases, virtual machines, and the like. They "pay" for those services, thus giving IT the money needed to implement them. Every IT decision becomes tied to a direct business need, and allocated budget from the people who feel they need those services.

    Yes, it's a Shift...and No, We're Not There Yet
    This is definitely a shift in the way IT does business, and in how the business is managed. It isn't going to happen because one systems engineer suggests it; this kind of change starts right with the CEO, CTO and CFO. In small ways, many IT shops have been doing this for years -- and it's a good idea. Over the next decade or so, you'll start to see a gradual shift to the "private cloud," helping better connect IT decisions with business need and benefit. It doesn't need to happen quickly, but as the tools and technologies arrive that enable this kind of business structure, businesses will slowly start to adopt it.

    Posted by Don Jones on 05/06/2011 at 1:14 PM


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