Get off of my cloud

Image credit: Josh Atwell

Get off of my cloud

[Note: This is a draft of a longer article I’ll be publishing in an industry journal.

There is a series of amusing videos circulating the Internet that feature Larry Ellison, CEO of Oracle, taking terms like “cloud computing” and “the cloud” to task. Simply visit your favorite search engine and query “Larry Ellison on cloud computing”.

The top hit should be a video of Larry Ellison being, well, Larry Ellsion. It’s worth spending 3 minutes to watch Ellison talk about “cloud computing” and “the cloud”. Here’s why…

The Cloud?

[While Ellison mixes humor and hyperbole regarding “the cloud”, it is also evident that the same man that envisioned a Network Computer almost 15 years ago has strong opinions about what “the cloud” is in reality. Still, in attempting to define what is and what is not “cloud”, perceptions are quite varied.

As any service provider professional knows from network diagrams that depict the Internet, the commonly used clip art will be a “cloud”. To come back to Ellison’s point, everything that a customer might view as a “cloud” is what a service provider is ultimately going to enable. That might be shocking to many reading this but indeed you as a service provider are making the “cloud” possible.

Yet when a group of non-juggernaut sized service providers assemble at events the perception of “cloud” often brings up names like Google, Amazon, Rackspace, and entities that are not the service providers themselves. If you ask the same assembly if they can provide a hosted application to their customers you’ll probably hear “Yes” or “Yes, through our hosting partner”.

Metaphorically, the precipitation falling from the “cloud” is software as a service (SaaS), infrastructure as a service (IaaS), and storage;hardware;communication; as a service (XaaS). So, what is that sets apart “cloud” from what service providers are doing today?

Yes, the Cloud.

What Google, Amazon, Rackspace, and various large application service providers have proven is that the “cloud” approach of marketing and packaging hosted applications is vigorous and growing rapidly. The “cloud” market is estimated to be in the tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars from a variety of market research firms and economic studies.

If you’ve been contacted by a vendor there is a good chance your vendor is using Salesforce.com which has embraced a “cloud” as their own logo. By breaking down what Salesforce.com does, it turns out to be a set of hosted applications running in a data center your vendor has never visited. Within that data center it is also likely that the servers stacked up in racks connected to high capacity Internet links are “virtualized” servers. In effect, by calling a particular approach to hosting various applications, the “cloud” was born.

Digging deeper, an article roughly a year ago from datacenterknowledge.com indicates that Salesforce.com “cloud” was actually “a single, third-party Web hosting facility located on the west coast of the United States, leased from Equinix, Inc.” . Next, consider that Google’s “cloud” includes synchronous replication of customer data across multiple randomized regional data centers located strategically around the globe and you start to see how not all “clouds” are created equal.

Making Clouds

Today, the most pervasive hosted collaboration application is widely considered to be the humble service known simply as email. If service providers have offered an email service then a variety of “cloud” has been delivered to subscribers. The email service may be hosted at the service provider or at a third-party provider somewhere else entirely accessible across the Internet.

Another example that is very well understood by service providers is the notion of IP Centrex. IP Centrex was rebranded as communication as a service (CaaS) and with the advent of application programming interface (API) access it was reclaimed a “cloud” based communications. Again, it is very likely that then a variety of “cloud” has been delivered to subscribers already.

2010: A Service Provider Odyssey

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Four years ago, Billing & OSS (B/OSS) World highlighted the following areas for service providers to pay attention to: IPTV, Mobile TV, FTTP, VoIP, WiMAX, P2P, IMS, ENUM, FMC, and IPv6. Conspicuously absent from this list is any reference to a “cloud”. So while “cloud” might not have been on the radar of B/OSS some four years ago, the past two years have seen around 400 articles alone that reference a “cloud”.

So, it might be time to consider how a service provider today can get in on this “cloud” business.

Clouds Ahead

The prior example of providing email and IP Centrex is just a way to view the “cloud” opportunity for a service provider. Other such opportunities are a relationship away by working with a growing number of partners that have identified the unique position a service provider has in delivering a hosted application.

Examples of areas where a “cloud” opportunity presents itself:

  • Netbooks

  • Content Delivery Networks

  • Private Clouds

Netbooks

[or Windows 7. The disk space on netbooks is usually enough to hold an operating system but not much else. Instead, the operating systems support so-called “cloud” based storage solutions that keep subscriber files and important data backed up somewhere else on the Internet until it is accessed by the netbook.

Next, the notion of being able to access this “cloud” sequestered data with a netbook brings to mind the importance of low latency high speed Internet connectivity and where the service provider has to shine: broadband that is delivered with “cloud” applications in mind. So, the service provider should imagine the following scenario:

“Cloud” storage for files on a netbook are a single hop away from the aggregation of the access layer solution. From the netbook, to the subscriber CPE, to the gateway for the CPE, to the remote, to the central office, to the rack and right before reaching the Internet — a virtual server within the same rack is providing file storage and safe secured replication for the subscriber files.

At no point does the subscriber have to leave the service provider network and cross the Internet to reach those “cloud” files. Effectively, the files are right down the street. If the subscriber travels to another town, city, state, or country those files are still accessible over the Internet that comes back to the service provider.

As with most opportunities in the “cloud” space, there are already a variety of partners catering to service providers. The key decision a service provider must make is key to retaining the subscriber relationship by deciding how much they will be delivering for a high quality “cloud” experience. If the service provider wishes to be best in delivering the connectivity and leave the application stack to another third-party, there are partners ready to take on those challenges.

Content Delivery Networks

[are the companies that enable how the modern web experience is produced today. The digital assets you browse, stream, and download online are likely to be delivered from a “cloud”. CNN.com is an example of this approach whereby the traffic to deliver a web site is broken up into numerous web servers all across the Internet to get images, videos, and downloads to subscribers as close and fast as possible.

By partnering with CDNs such as Akamai, Limelight, and Level 3, the service provider can potentially offload a great deal of Internet traffic and improve customer experience by bringing the “cloud” multiple hops closer to the subscriber. In the case of Akamai, they are known to evaluate the ASN of a service provider and offer to colocate their own special Akamai servers at no charge within the service provider point of presence where subscriber broadband traffic is aggregated.

This improvement in the online experience is notable for subscribers that are into gaming. While the games are often played over the Internet, the real benefit in the gaming experience comes when gaming patches and related game downloads are exclusively distributed by “cloud” providers.

Also, as most Over the Top (OTT) programming is delivered via “cloud” providers, that experience is enhanced as well. While OTT is not without controversy, ultimately the subscriber experience is defined by the quality of the broadband solution delivered by the service provider.

Private Clouds

[Private “clouds” and hybrid “clouds” represent the highest margin opportunity for service providers. By creating an on demand infrastructure that targets business class subscribers the service provider can deliver everything from hosted applications to advanced connectivity and network security to enable signifiant savings over CAPEX intensive alternatives.

Service providers should be looking at how they can train staff in disruptive solutions from Google such as Google Apps. Google Apps resellers and integrators are growing but are not always within immediate reach for high touch needs of service providers. Since launching a few years ago, Google Apps approach has been formulated to be especially attractive to the business customers of service providers. For the business customer concerned with investments already within their IT closet, a service provide could offer a managed Google Secure Data Connector (SDC) as one way to enable and conduct business in a secure and repeatable manner within Google Apps.

Microsoft is also looking for service providers to partner with and is offering healthy incentives to do so in the form of margin. In essence, Microsoft has enabled service providers to become centers of excellence in providing an array of collaboration solutions ranging from Exchange to Sharepoint. These familiar products are well known to businesses and come with the marketing might of Microsoft.

Amazon and other Virtual Private Server (VPS) hosting providers allow the creation of a service provider partnership. This partnership allows the service provider to defer up front CAPEX in favor of easily passed along OPEX for instances where an application has to be hosted outside of geographic market for business continuity or disaster recovery (DRBC) purposes. As all of these solutions for a business would require connectivity an managed security, the service provider is uniquely positioned to solve that part of the DRBC puzzle as well.

As you might imagine, a recent entrant into this space is Cisco. The Cisco vision extends to enable private “clouds” in both enterprise and the service provider market. By providing the server hardware, software, and networking fabric used by “cloud” hosting providers to a service provider, a “cloud” can be up and running very quickly and with network integration and TCO as the top draw.

Finally, the main benefit for “cloud” is the speed to provision high margin hosted applications and services. This benefit is what makes “cloud” attractive to the savvy service provider: impulse enablement. The notion of turning on a server, application, or an entire collection of applications for the month they are need – and just as quickly shutting them down again may sound contrary to an industry known for long term contracts. However, by lowering the friction and by using self service approaches, the service provider nearby becomes a trusted first call from subscribers. By making it easy to do business, subscribers are more likely to work with you locally than to seek out options in the public “cloud”.

Keep your head in the clouds

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Parting Clouds

When considering what “cloud” represents it is important to understand where the marketing terminology ends and the opportunity begins for the service provider. By taking a partnership approach to novel devices such as netbooks, partnerships with CDNs, and applying COTS solutions to create private clouds, the service provider can quickly enter the “cloud” marketplace by delivering first class broadband that links subscribers to solutions that deliver high value.