'Cloud in a box' promises to snap in private cloud resources on demand

Cloud-in-a-box solutions promise to take the burden of building a private cloud off enterprise IT departments.

For enterprises that don't have the time or resources to build a private cloud, there are several new "cloud in a box" options.

Like building blocks, cloud-in-a-box offerings from companies including IBM, Hewlett-Packard Co., VMware Inc., Cisco Systems Inc., EMC Corp. and Dell Inc. enable enterprises to add capacity on demand to their existing data centers. Notable entrants include Hewlett-Packard's BladeSystem Matrix, IBM's CloudBurst 1.2 (built on the IBM System x BladeCenter platform), Dell's cloud infrastructure products, and vBlock packages from the Virtual Computing Environment (VCE) coalition formed jointly by Cisco and EMC with VMware, according to James Staten, principal analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge.

These modular, cloud-in-a-box products feature virtualized hardware equipped with such cloud-like features as resource orchestration, self-service provisioning, and metered usage and billing. They also ensure that various parts of the private cloud computing infrastructure and software are optimized to work together and provide a single point of contact for support. Most importantly, they enable enterprises to add private cloud functions quickly.

The idea is modularity. If my private cloud tells me I need more capacity, I can add it in.
Greg Shieldssenior partner and principal technologist, Concentrated Technology LLC

"The idea is modularity," said Greg Shields, senior partner and principal technologist at Concentrated Technology LLC, an IT education and strategic consulting practice in Denver. A cloud in a box is intended to be easy to snap in, he said. "If my private cloud tells me I need more capacity, I can add it in."

The concept of a cloud in a box is compelling primarily because of the optimization involved in a product for a specific purpose, such as storage, IT executives and industry analysts said.

'Cloud in a box' for storage and optimization

In fact, "right now it's mostly storage" that enterprises are interested in adding, according to Rob Enderle, president and principal analyst at Enderle Group Inc. "It really does lend itself to an on-demand solution," he said. Other uses include application development, a new data center or a gradual replacement of older technology silos.

The other key function is optimization, according to Judith Hurwitz, president and CEO of Hurwitz & Associates LLC, a strategy consulting and research firm in Needham, Mass. "The real issue in the data center, and the reason it's inefficient, is that you have four or five operating systems [and] 40 applications, and the data center has to accommodate everything," she said. "[Vendors have] really tuned those workloads for that physical environment."

"HP says, 'Hey, we can optimize everything; we've got great jigsaw pieces; we'll put it together for you,'" said Geoff Woollacott, engagement manager and senior analyst at Technology Business Research Inc. in Hampton, N.H. "It's the notion of the drop-in appliance, the business information utility device."

On paper, the cloud-in-a-box concept resonates with R. Todd Thomas, CIO of Austin Radiological Association (ARA) MSO LLC, a provider of medical imaging services to hospitals and physicians in central Texas. ARA spent a long time developing its own private cloud to hide the normal complexities of IT from requestors. "We want to allow a subset of end users, or external customers, to request or order pre-established server configurations that will meet their needs, without involving the personnel of IT. We should be able to add capacity as needed, and we should be able to charge back those requestors depending upon their resource usage," he said.

So, what's the catch with cloud in a box?

On the flip side, some people argue that a private cloud in a box can't deliver the same innovation that a public cloud provider would, because it isn't driven to innovate by a crowd. In addition, some of these offerings, while "fantastic," fall short of a private cloud; and are really converged infrastructures, according to Joe Onisick, technical solutions architect at systems integrator World Wide Technology Inc. in St. Louis.

"You have to cut through the data sheet," Onisick said. "IBM's and HP's offerings have more automation, but nobody has a complete cloud in a box."

What's missing is orchestration, such as that being offered by CA Inc., with its acquisition of 3Tera Inc., Onisick said "The orchestration software coming from companies like BMC Software Inc. and CA is very complex, but once in place, offers the value that makes it worth it," he said.

Moreover, the price is enough to give most CIOs pause. Private-cloud systems like vBlock and CloudBurst can cost $250,000 to $1 million, depending on how much software is included. The high price tag has some IT executives wondering how long the smoke and mirrors will last.

"[Personally,] I can get two terabytes [of storage] for about 70 bucks," said William Hayes, director of decision support for Biogen Idec Inc., a global biotechnology company based in Weston, Mass. "It's insane, but I can't get that at work."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Laura Smith, Features Writer.

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