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I spent the last two days at Cloud Expo in Santa Clara, sitting in on sessions and talking to vendors that produce solutions in this space. As a backdrop to this, I’ve spent a fair bit of time over the past several months working with customers who are evaluating their cloud strategy, especially as it relates to private cloud. What is the “private cloud”, you ask? First, a little disclaimer…

As a long-time IT pro as well as a software guy, I’ve been historically skeptical of new buzzwords and technology trends (I’m sure I’m not alone here). “Cloud” is the latest phenomenon to come out of the energetic minds of software marketing folks, but for once, I’m embracing the word, if not the concept!

Many of you are well down the road of virtualizing your data centers and server environments. I know companies that have gotten as high as 90% virtualized–and those are big companies. Of course, with every new technology trend that promises to solve important problems, there is generally a reluctance on the part of IT shops to change their processes to take full advantage of the technology. This is just natural, of course. People establish ways of doing things over years. Rapid technology changes, in and of themselves, typically don’t force change. It takes recognizing what the new technology can mean for you if you DO change, that helps drive that change. That brings me to private cloud. What is it? What does it mean for IT shops? Simply this — a better way of managing your virtualized server resources that forces those process changes. Here’s a common scenario that illustrates this concept.

How many of you, once making the move to virtualized servers, have yet to change your processes for how your provision and manage your server VMs? In other words, how many of still manage your virtual servers like your physical servers? Still have 2 week turn-arounds on requests for new servers that include manual reviews by server admins or capacity people, manual kickoffs of server-builds, etc. If you answered “yes I do” for any of those then you probably need a private cloud (or more specifically, your users need it). Not because it’s the latest buzzword, but because it helps you evolve your processes to catch up with the technology.

That being said, at a panel discussion at Cloud Expo, one analyst mentioned that poll of IT shops they conducted, showed that fully 70% of respondents had “no plans” around private cloud. Does that mean it has no value? No. I suspect a lot of that is mixed up in the natural challenges around IT–that folks don’t know what the cloud means (does it mean I have to put my servers at Amazon?), don’t have time to think about it and don’t have budget for it. Ok, I’ve talked around it long enough–what exactly is the private cloud? Here’s some of the characteristics of a private cloud that I’ve come to after having built one, and surveyed what vendors are talking about with respect to it. A private cloud is:

  • A management layer on top of your virtualized environment that is agnostic to underlying hypervisor technology. That is, it can work across multiple hypervisors, in multiple geographic regions
  • Provides Self-service provisioning and automation for your end users–no more server requests with manual intervention by server admins
  • Charge-back or “Show-back” of virtualized resource usage, akin to what Amazon Web Services does
  • Policies/automated rules for providing elastic capacity for server applications that require more resources based on real-time usage (e.g. automatically adding more front-end web servers, for example, if the applications starts to get busy).

There are a probably a few more things that could be thrown into there, but by and large, those are the big things that folks hope to get out of evolving from “a bunch of virtualized servers” to a private cloud.

Of course, the next logical step, as vendors would have you believe, is the “hybrid cloud”, which is essentially a private cloud that has the ability to burst workload out to a public cloud provider (e.g. Amazon, Rackspace, etc.) when application needs require it. While hybrid clouds are all the rage amongst vendors providing solutions in this space, I’m still not convinced that this is a slam dunk, given the complexities of doing such bursting of typical enterprise applications to a public provider. This was echo’d on that same panel discussion at Cloud Expo, where all of the participants were skeptical of the reality of hybrid clouds. But I suspect we will get there eventually, as this whole thing matures. Today, we are probably in year 2 or 3 of a 10 year cycle that has yet to reach even adolescence.

One final point I’ll make. Perhaps it was being in Silicon Valley (the home of the “we hate Windows” fan club) or perhaps its just the nature of a new industry, but it’s interesting to see how marginalized Windows is as a part of the cloud story. Many of vendors displaying their wares talk to you first about Linux support and various other open source technologies (not to mention that most of these solutions are built on Linux, Ruby, Java, Python, MySQL etc.) before getting to a discussion of Windows–that despite the fact that I would guess that most enterprises typically run anywhere from 30-75% of their infrastructures on Windows server. Is Windows being left behind by the cloud? Hard to say. Microsoft would certainly have you believe otherwise, with big investments in their Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) solution — Azure — and their investment in some cloud-management capabilities in System Center 2012. But Amazon, not Azure, is the 800lb Gorilla in the public cloud space, and many of the solutions that provide private cloud management are Linux-centric and pretty dumb about managing virtualized Windows systems. I do see this market and these vendors moving past Microsoft at a great rate, and so it will be interesting to see if Windows 8 helps make Windows a more cloudy platform, or just perpetuates the current trend of technology rendering what is going on in Redmond as an afterthought. As a Windows guy, I’m hoping for the former rather than the latter!

What do you think? Are you doing “cloudy things” in your own shop and how is it helping you better manage your systems (and especially your Windows systems)?