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IT executives share their views on private clouds

IT executives and system integrators add their two cents to the private cloud definition, and discuss whether they have anything to gain from the "new paradigm."

Jay Leader's definition of private cloud resembles that of many other IT executives: a network of servers providing on-demand services "within my own infrastructure, or externally in a dedicated hosted infrastructure."

The CIO of iRobot Corp. in Cambridge, Mass., also reacts the same way to the "new" paradigm as other seasoned IT pros do: He's not impressed. "I'm old enough to remember service bureaus on mainframes," Leader said. "Technology is like fashion. If you wait around long enough, what's out will be back in again."

"We have come full circle in 25 years," said Fred Rathweg, DB2 architect at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.

In the not-too-distant past, mainframes hosted applications and billed "time-sharing" customers based on use. It was a sensible way to manage the high costs of computing resources before miniaturization, commoditization and competition drove PC prices down and enterprises could bring applications in-house and send employees out with laptops. Now the private cloud is seen as an attempt to regain control of a distributed computing environment, with some of the benefits of the public cloud but fewer of the public cloud's risks.

For some, risk in the private cloud -- or rather, taking measures to prevent it -- comes down to access controls. "My definition of a private cloud is a server or multiple servers dedicated only to my company -- and that the switches and routers connected to the servers are accessed only by my company or authorized users," said Edie May, IT manager at Johnson & Johnson Inc., an insurance provider in Charleston, N.C.

A common private cloud definition

"The reality is, when we talk about a private cloud, it could be an entire data center, but most likely it's a component of your company's data center," said Judith Hurwitz, president and CEO of Hurwitz & Associates LLC, a consulting firm in Needham, Mass. Services within a private cloud environment are automated and self-provisioned based on authorizations, she said, "and when you're done [with the service], you give it back."

There's no clear-cut definition of what a private cloud is, but many IT executives mention the same four characteristics (see sidebar at right) when they attempt to define it.

A private cloud is a good solution "for a company that wants the benefit of cloud computing but has privacy issues -- or because in reality, they are an IT company," Hurwitz said. "The distinction between 'I'm an IT department' and 'I'm a business' is fading," she said. "If you're a financial services company, the services are all IT-based. Those companies are looking at private clouds as a way of providing services."

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which received a directive this month from federal CIO Vivek Kundra to accelerate the adoption of cloud standards, has a fairly broad private cloud definition: "The cloud infrastructure is operated solely for an organization. It may be managed by the organization or a third party, and may exist on-premises or off-premises."

NIST defines cloud computing in general as having five specific characteristics: on-demand self-service, broad network access, resource pooling, rapid elasticity and measured service. To achieve those objectives, private clouds will be built on a foundation of server virtualization, with automation, monitoring, and provisioning tools layered on top, experts said.

This is just the kind of private cloud being built at the Sisters of Mercy Health System in St. Louis. The health care organization virtualized 95% of its Windows servers -- "a tremendous accomplishment," said COO Jeff Bell, considering that the effort was part of a survival strategy in a data center running out of power. "Necessity was the mother of invention," he said. Now, when a manager comes to IT with a request for a server, "we don't say, 'here's how much it costs'; we say, 'here's your allocation and you'll be up in an hour.'"

Organizations can use existing resources to create private clouds, as is the case at Mercy Health System, or buy one of the prepackaged offerings being marketed as private clouds from such vendors as IBM and Hewlett-Packard Co., which tout such advantages as joint testing and support.

Never mind the definition. Should I use a private cloud?

"To me, [the definition is] not all that important," said the CIO of a large audio electronics company, who asked to remain anonymous. "A label is a label. It's more important to know what the capabilities are, and look at that. Do they meet my needs?" he said.

Jay Leader considered that very question, and the answer is the reason why iRobot isn't gliding toward the cloud. From his seat on the management committee, he has a view of the company's objective: to sell robots to the consumer market as well as to the defense industry. The latter part of the strategy is what precludes him from taking the public cloud seriously.

Technology is like fashion. If you wait around long enough, what's out will be back in again.

Jay Leader, CIO, iRobot Corp.

"As a provider to the defense industry, we're not putting anything in somebody else's cloud," said Leader, who won a 2010 CIO of the Year award from the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council. "Not knowing where their servers are located, … why take the risk?"

Even when pressed to consider the most frequently stated use case for private or public clouds -- software developers can spin up a development environment for a few hours or weeks -- Leader is unswayed.

"It hasn't evolved to the place where, for us, it would be an advantage," Leader said. "The promise is ahead of the practical benefit. The cloud makes perfect sense if you're starting from nothing, or for businesses that need on-demand capability, especially storage." But iRobot doesn't run spiky loads, he said. "What's the benefit? Economically, the numbers simply don't work."

Private cloud proponents point to the benefits of management, automation and orchestration above the virtualized environment, but "I'm always happy to have management tools internally -- and those things are coming," Leader said.

Private cloud is all about the business

Joe Onisick likes to say that if your private cloud definition is based on hardware and software, you're already off-base. It's about people and processes.

"The cloud can mean whatever you want it to be," said Onisick, technical solutions architect at systems integrator World Wide Technology Inc. in St. Louis, and author of the Define the Cloud blog. "You need to know what it is you want from the cloud. What is your business goal?"

If he had to define it, the private cloud would be about end-user self-service, with automated provisioning and an orchestration capability built into a portal that IT managers can operate with a mouse, point-and-click, Onisick said.

Today's private cloud could be time-shared computing come full circle, except that this time, instead of a static, physical computing infrastructure, it takes place on a virtualized, extremely elastic platform. To some, private clouds are an evolution of the corporate computing paradigm, a step toward public clouds, should they be deemed advantageous to the business.

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

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