Future of computing: Forecast calls for partly cloudy

Cloud computing is the hottest Internet insider buzzword since the technologies to which it owes its existence: Virtualization and Grid Computing.

In May’s Interop Unconference, we explored their intersection in an informal jam session with enthusiastic audience participation starring Jinesh Varia (Amazon), Kirill Sheynkman (Elastra), Rueven Cohen (Enomaly), Jacob Farmer (Cambridge Computer), and Louis DiMeglio (ScienceLogic).

It’s taken some time to fully digest the results.

To many of us, the cloud is that amorphous blob of semicircular squiggles the IT crowd has been using on whiteboards to represent the internet since the mid-nineties. Clouds mean we don’t care what’s in them.

Cloud Computing - everything and the kitchen sinkOnce upon a time, that cloud in the middle of the whiteboard used to just represent the network — how to get from here to there. All the interesting stuff happened outside its borders. More recently, however, we’ve started moving the rest of the shapes on the whiteboard into the cloud. Applications and infrastructure are now drawn within the borders of that formerly ill-defined and anarchic etherspace.

If you listen to some overzealous cloudnuts, you’ll will hear that pretty much everything is rushing headlong into the Internet’s troposphere. But the truth is much more complex, and rational opinions seem to favor a hybrid future of rich clients, hardware, and software. We’ll have a hugely diverse mix of private and public cloud-based services providing both a back-end and a matrix for device interaction.

Aside: I’ll leave defining cloud computing ad nauseam to other bloggers. For our purpose it is the trend of outsourcing what you would normally run in your datacenter to an indefinitely flexible computing platform which is billed to you as a utility. Traditional hosters don’t count (for me) as cloud providers, but newer managed service hosters might, depending on the level of automation and scalability they employ.

So what did the Interop crowd conclude?

Since most of Interop’s attendees are IT infrastructure folks with a stake in the game, we had a lot to discuss:

How will clouds affect our jobs?

Will the computer networking industry as we know it come to an end?

One camp suspected that clouds will commoditize IT, leaving just a few elite engineers and operators jobs. These survivors might work in radically centralized data centers owned by a handful of “last clouds standing,” with a skeleton crew manning the transit providers.

On the other hand, it’s possible that a wide range of IT requirements and market competition will foster a variety of specialized and geographically localized clouds. This might come from compliance requirements (e-commerce or health), leaving many enterprises continuing to roll their own due to political, performance or security considerations.

Will the clouds start making their own gear?

Will cloud companies start to purchase infrastructure vendors as those complex products become increasingly strategic differentiators? Google has already been rumored to have developed their own 10GBit ethernet switch, presumably a crucial component in scaling their massively parallel architecture.

Will the cloud be good enough for mission-critical enterprise apps?

Amazon Web Services are evolving rapidly, introducing new features such as persistent storage, geographic localization, and even AWS SLAs. Will this be sufficient for most enterprises to begin running mission critical, sensitive applications in the cloud? Probably not.

AWS seems to be mainly popular for SaaS builders and web based startups. Large enterprise is testing the waters carefully — or most likely without realizing. There are lots of skunkworks projects running out there because IT was unable to deliver services for a last-minute project.

Other popular uses are SMB backups, prototyping, QA, and spillover resources.

In contrast to AWS, Google’s Appengine lets web software developers run their own SaaS applications on Google’s highly scalable platform.  Google has lowered the barrier to getting code out there by offering it for free up to 500 MB of storage and 5 million pageviews per month. Currently only suitable for Python shops, they plan on releasing support for more programming languages and frameworks.

What about SaaS and the cloud?

On the SaaS side of the cloud, Google Health is encouraging you to upload, organize and share your highly sensitive personal health information. I can’t imagine adoption has been rapid. At least Google Health defaults to SSL, a first for a Google application I believe (GMAIL still requires you to explicitly type https to maintain a secure session).

Even if you trust SSL, the security of such a system is questionable since it shares authentication with all your other Google services and could consitute a big privacy risk in association with data from all your other services.

Don’t lose perspective

There are more questions than answers about securing, optimizing, and monitoring the cloud. Will it be more cost effective? Is it worth redeveloping my software for the cloud? Will I be able to ensure adequate uptime? Are there geopolitical considerations in working with cloud networks?

In theory, eventually there should be a cloud architecture that will address everyone’s requirements. But it may be a long time before that level of security, reliability and trust develops. You might trust the cloud today, but there’s a good chance your trust isn’t justified. Call it a partly cloudy forecast.