The challenges of shaping the future of the cloud

Enterprise IT departments struggle when it comes to selecting the best cloud solutions for their needs. All too often, those departments want to mix and match components from different vendors, but the current poor state of interoperability in the cloud market makes this challenging. The Open Data Center Alliance (ODCA) hopes to change that.

This week the consortium, which includes BMW, Lockheed Martin and AT&T, released a wide-ranging set of eight use cases that describe the components required in various enterprise cloud deployments. The aim? Make it easier to compare and contrast commercial solutions and increase the level of technical interoperability between clouds. The hope is that data and services can move from one cloud provider to another with minimal difficulty, and the consortium is calling upon members to proactively adopt these use cases in their internal planning and procurement processes.

The cases, available as separate documents, cover four broad themes:

  • Secure federation: Two documents offer a model (PDF) for a set of security requirements and propose a classification system (PDF) in which cloud products from virtual machines to network infrastructure can be categorized as achieving platinum, gold, silver or bronze levels of security protection.
  • Automation: The alliance proposes mechanisms for policy-based management (PDF) to control the use of network resources by different virtual machines, along with a model for standardizing the tools (PDF) used to control the virtual machines offered by different cloud providers.
  • Common management and policy: The alliance offers a document (PDF) that plays the potentially invaluable role of beginning to identify some of the major regulators (such as the SEC in the U.S.) affecting different industries and geographies. The document does not yet go as far as actually mapping the regulations and their implications, and this work needs to take place before the real value becomes apparent.
  • Transparency: Reporting and provision of metrics are increasingly important, both to enterprise customers and to the wider world. Three alliance use cases provide models for consistent reporting and comparison of carbon footprints (PDF), the cost and capability of individual IaaS offerings and the description of a cloud provider’s service catalog (PDF).

The alliance suggests that support for its work will generate billions in new business for the cloud computing industry and will save as much as $25 billion in customers’ deployment costs. Industry players such as EMC and Hitachi Data Systems are listed in the lowest tier of involvement as “adopter members,” though major cloud providers such as Amazon and Rackspace do not appear to have been involved in drafting or commenting upon these documents.

Nevertheless, the alliance rather aggressively “expects” the cloud-computing industry to respond to its documents within six months by providing new technical roadmaps and supporting new deployments. To what extent cloud providers will be willing or able to meet all of the alliance’s demands remains unclear; there’s been little public comment from the companies such as HP, IBM and Rackspace, with whom the Alliance really needs to engage.

By seeking to describe mainstream use cases, the alliance has taken a potentially valid approach to harmonizing the cloud computing market. However, many of these use cases remain weak and lacking in detail. The Regulatory Framework activity, for example, is currently little more than a list of regulators, and it’s a long way from being a viable use case that a vendor or buyer could use to make decisions.

The alliance is not the first to recognize the need for greater interoperability in the cloud market. NISO and the IEEE are active in this space, and the Data Center Management Taskforce has a Cloud Management Standards activity. And while there’s no denying that such attempts at standardization are a positive thing, as they help both buyers and sellers of cloud services, too many “standards” runs the risk of no standard at all.

To combat this, the alliance should concentrate on enriching its use cases and then submitting them to the standards bodies and regulators already active in this space. These use cases have the potential to be a valuable addition to those activities. They lack the detail to justifiably be used as sticks with which to beat “noncompliant” vendors.

Question of the week

What can the ODCA and others do to successfully standardize the cloud market?