Vendors of cloud technology like Microsoft and VMware promise big cost savings for customers who move their operations to the cloud, and more and more businesses are trying out at least parts of it.
But there’s a lot of technical work to be done before the cloud works as seamlessly as the hype would have us believe.
A report published this month by Gartner analyst Darryl Plummer says that cloud portability – the ability to move your workload from one cloud provider to another without having to make major changes to your workload first – is “virtually non-existent” and will be for some time.
Interoperability – the ability for services such as e-mail to interoperate, even when they’re on different clouds – is possible today, but standards are nascent (more than two years away, according to Gartner) and the task is still challenging.
Several vendors offer tools to help with various aspects of cloud interoperability, Plummer says, including Appirio, GXS, IBM, Tibco and Boomi.
One company, JNBridge, last month introduced Project Lightening, a plan to make both Microsoft.Net-based cloud services and Java-based cloud services accessible to developers. Developers would also be able to write cloud services that incorporate components from both Java and .Net.
JNBridge’s customers are financial institutions, media and manufacturing companies and others whose infrastructure tends to run on Java but who need access to Microsoft applications as well.
Chief technology officer Wayne Citirn says his goal is “full cloud-to-cloud access, where any cloud service can access any other cloud’s service…In order for this to work, developers need (to be able) to write cloud services using any platform…regardless of the cloud vendor.”
Gartner’s Plummer says JNBridge has an interesting approach to the cloud because it supports multiple languages and multiple APIs. “Most cloud services (at least at the platform level) do not support multiple languages, containers, or APIs,” he wrote in an e-mail message. “But there is still a lot of work to be done even with their offerings. And, this type of approach only works with newly developed services that use the languages they saupport as opposed to, say, a Force.com app.”
Before you leap into the cloud, it’s important to figure out what your goals are and create a step-by-step plan for achieving them, says Vasa Dasan, chief technology officer of the Armada Group, a consultant.
Customers can start by understanding as best they can what the cloud is. Dasan divides it into three layers – data center infrastructure, sold as a service by a provider like OpSource; platform as a service, which provides APIs for building on top of existing cloud software platforms like Facebook or the Google App Engine or Salesforce’s Force.com; and software as a service, which delivers software applications like Google Apps over the network.
There are also private clouds and public clouds – some providers, like OpSource, offer both.
Because moving to the cloud is complex, a plan to do so can stretch over several years. Some apps can be moved as they are, some will need restructuring – Armada tweaked one application for a customer because “every time you clicked on a mouse it sent bits across the network, which is not good” – and some apps “need to be forklifted into a hosting environment.”
Dasan says there’s no clear winner yet among cloud providers and “we’re two years into a 10-year cycle.” He advises customers to choose clouds by feature set – “focus on what you need” – and whether the provider can keep them compliant with any laws and regulations that govern their business.
Plummer says customers shouldn’t consider portability or interoperability as a reason for choosing clouds because it’s too soon. “The importance of these issues is dwarfed by the importance of whether or not cloud providers can deliver on what they promise,” he writes in his report. “Select services where there is validated consumer interest in interoperability with other services, and where the service provider has begun to provide a vibrant partner ecosystem to make sure interoperability is part of its value chain.”
Furthermore, he writes, setting standards for the cloud at such an early stage might hamper cloud development and cause problems for customers. Early standards are likely to be too narrow and won’t translate well from one layer of the cloud to another.