What the 'private cloud' really means

The definition of the private cloud may be fuzzy, but it's all part of the age-old quest for greater efficiency in IT

Cloud computing has two distinctly different meanings. The first is simple: The use of any commercial service delivered over the Internet in real time, from Amazon's EC2 to software as a service offered by the likes of Salesforce or Google.

The second meaning of cloud computing describes the architecture and technologies necessary to provide cloud services. The hot trend of the moment -- judging by last week's VMworld conference, among other indicators -- is the so-called private cloud, where companies in effect "try cloud computing at home" instead of turning to an Internet-based service. The idea is that you get all the scalability, metering, and time-to-market benefits of a public cloud service without ceding control, security, and recurring costs to a service provider.

[ In IT today, the action is in the private cloud. InfoWorld's experts take you through what you need to know to do it right in our "Private Cloud Deep Dive" PDF special report. | Also check out our "Cloud Security Deep Dive," our "Cloud Storage Deep Dive," and our "Cloud Services Deep Dive." ]

I've ridiculed the private cloud in the past, for two reasons. First, because all kinds of existing technologies and approaches can be grandfathered into the definition. And second, because it smacks of the mythical "lights out" data center, where you roll out a bunch of automation, lay off your admins, and live happily ever after with vastly reduced costs. Not even the goofiest know-nothing believes that one anymore.

Yet, despite natural skepticism, the private cloud appears to be taking shape. The technologies underlying it are pretty obvious, beginning with virtualization (for easy scalability, flexible resource management, and maximum hardware utilization) and data center automation (mainly for auto-provisioning of physical hosts). Chargeback metering keeps business management happy (look, we can see the real cost of IT!), and identity-based security helps ensure only authorized people get access to the infrastructure and application resources they need.

Predictably, no early private cloud adopters (none that I've heard of, anyway) have made the quixotic attempt to turn their entire infrastructure into a private cloud. Instead, they have identified certain areas where the cloud model makes sense, such as dev and test, a low-risk use case we've heard about for awhile. IBM ventured into this area over a year ago with its WebSphere CloudBurst Appliance, which is basically a blade server preconfigured for Java dev and test that lets developers self-provision resources through a Web interface, with metering of those resources built in.

At VMworld, HP jumped into the private cloud feet first with its CloudStart solution, which combines hardware (HP BladeSystem Matrix), software (HP Cloud Service Automation), and professional services (HP Cloud Consulting) to yield private cloud deployments within 30 days. Rather than dev and test, HP is focusing on delivering business applications as private cloud "services," from Microsoft Exchange to Oracle PeopleSoft to SAP Business Objects.

You can argue, of course, that this is just another prepackaged deal of the type consultancies have been offering for years. The main difference is that so much cloudy stuff comes in the big honking blade server package -- virtual machine management, auto-provisioning, virtualization-based disaster recovery, chargeback, and so on.  

A multipurpose appliance is one way to skin the private cloud. But if you ask me, the most interesting emerging use case for the private cloud is what you might call the "partner cloud." Just as a decade ago companies began offering Web portals for their customers and partners, with Web forms for managing accounts and ordering new goods or services, partner clouds actually deliver services.

At VMworld, both Sabre Holdings and Siemens talked about their partner cloud solutions. "Sabre is building customized solutions for various airlines," said Raghu Raghuram, VMware's senior vice president and general manager for virtualization and cloud platforms. "They want to shorten the cycle for building it, showing it, selling it," using private clouds managed by vCloud Director, VMware's new cloud management solution. Siemens, which Raghuram terms a "quasi service provider," has a pilot project called the Secure Virtual TestCenter, in which the company has "set up environments for its partners," also with the aid of vCloud Director.

So on the one hand, the private cloud is just another step toward the commodification of IT, where internal customers pick from a menu of metered services across a virtualized infrastructure, rather than specifying the nth requirement for custom deployments that tie up resources forever. On the other hand, one of the most exciting use cases for the private cloud is the ability for enterprises to establish quasi-public clouds for partners, which may accelerate business-to-business e-commerce in unanticipated ways.

Without question, the private cloud comes with a large dose of hogwash. Nonetheless, the model of providing commodity services on top of pooled, well-managed virtual resources has legs, because it has the potential to take a big chunk of cost and menial labor out of the IT equation. The lights in the data center will never go out. The drive for greater efficiency, though, has had a dozen names in the history of IT, and the private cloud just happens to be the latest one.

This article, "What the 'private cloud' really means" originally appeared at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Eric Knorr's Modernizing IT blog and get a digest of the key stories each day in the InfoWorld Daily newsletter and on your mobile device at infoworldmobile.com.

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