Friday, July 15, 2011

Virtualization is Core to Preparing Your IT Organization for the Cloud

In my work with SHI's strategic consulting practice, I work with a wide range of organizations to help them take advantage of cloud computing.
As part of our dialog we assess the organization's capabilities, their desired future state, and the best practices for deploying the cloud.

This leads to a clearly defined road map for consuming cloud services, applying cloud concepts to the organization's data centers, and addressing architectural application requirements.

I find that the organizations that are most successful in moving to the cloud already have significant experience in virtualization of their servers and applications. Virtualization is at the core of how organizations can make the most of using the cloud. There are several reasons for that, which I will get to in a bit.

First, I've learned that there are three fundamental questions that need to be dealt with in preparing for the cloud.

1. How will you "consume" cloud services?
2. How can you make your data center more cloud-like?
3. How can your applications take advantage of the cloud?

Consuming Cloud Services
The phrase "cloud services" actually encompasses several distinct types of services -- Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), for on-demand access to extra compute, storage, or other resources; Software as a Service (SaaS), where an application is run entirely in the cloud; and Platform as a Service (PaaS), where the cloud takes the shape of a virtual server including middleware like databases and web services. Each of these has its own particular set of strengths and weaknesses, and each is suited for a particular set of workloads. What is right for one organization might not be the best choice for another.

So the first question to answer is "how will I consume cloud services?" We work with clients to map out a path to implementing the most appropriate choices, helping them bring IaaS, SaaS, or PaaS into their organizations, secure them, and make the most out of them.

The Cloud-like Data Center
You will be better prepared to integrate cloud services into your IT infrastructure if your existing data center is already somewhat "cloud-like." Have you automated as much as you can, created self-service portals, and established an IT services catalog that users can choose from? If you have these in place, you can easily add cloud services to the automated, self-service catalog.

Also, what kind of support processes, governance policies, and standards do you need to develop and update to build yourself into what is essentially a private cloud? You might have all the hardware, but what else do you need? You might need to find a partner that can help you to avoid pitfalls on one hand and provide shortcuts that accelerate the transformation to becoming a private cloud on the other.

Applications that Leverage the Cloud
Just moving your applications "as is" into the cloud is not enough. In any shift to a new technology, there is a tendency for people to work with it as simply a faster, cheaper version of an existing technology. As an example, think of how the automobile was first treated as a "horseless carriage." Automobiles didn't become transformative to society and business until Henry Ford dropped the cost of the automobile, roads were paved, and super highways were built.

In the same way, you need to rethink your applications as you move to the cloud. There are two questions to be dealt with here. First, what do you need to do to your applications to move them into the cloud? Most multi-tier applications need to be re-architected to be able to leverage the capabilities of the cloud. This means working with your developers, with your vendors, or with a systems integrator to ensure that you get the full benefit of moving your application to the cloud.

Second, are there ways that you can work with your suppliers and partners to develop or use next-generation SaaS applications to enhance data sharing and interoperability? This could eliminate duplicate data entry or duplicate work processes across your value network. For example, perhaps there could be a master record set for something like SKUs that everybody in the supply chain can access, so that nobody has to re-enter it and re-do the whole thing.

These are the sorts of transformative changes that moving to the cloud will enable, and we should be preparing for them as we prepare for the cloud.

Virtualization is the Core
So, to get back to my original point, virtualization is the key to a successful move to the cloud. The better you are at virtualizing your own applications and servers, the easier it becomes to take advantage of the cloud. Virtualization lays the foundation for standardization and automation, things that are taken to the next level when using cloud services. So, get a handle on virtualization.

Most organizations I work with tend to have around 20 or 25 percent of their environment already virtualized. So the low-hanging fruit has already been virtualized, largely to share hardware and share resources. Then the next step up on the maturity ladder is to virtualize more of your production load. This involves re-building your network architecture or application architecture to take advantage of the virtual environment, because with cloud you will have to do exactly the same thing to gain the full benefit of using a cloud.

When you're using IaaS services, as you build the virtual application architecture into this cloud environment, the more you have already invested in virtualization and built the capabilities and skills required, the easier it will be coming to the cloud.

The True Costs and Benefits of Cloud Computing
Moving your IT infrastructure to the cloud has a significant impact on your data center costs. Yes, there are real economic benefits of moving to the cloud: transforming capital expenditures to operating expense, lowering total cost of ownership, etc.

As you start moving applications into the cloud, then you have a data center that becomes emptier and emptier. However, the cost of a data center does not fall linear to the number of applications you move out, because you continue to have lots of fixed overhead expenses. These overhead expenses do not necessarily go down just because you move applications to the cloud unless of course, you can shed those fixed costs through data center consolidation efforts!

For me, one of the biggest benefits of the cloud is agility -- testing new business models and spinning up new applications quickly. It's really more about creating new things that the business needs, quickly and easily in the cloud. We just all need to realize there are some legacy systems and applications that will continue to be in the data center, because it's not possible to move them out or to your own private cloud infrastructure. These applications will become more and more expensive, because they will carry a higher total cost of ownership.

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