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The Cloud OS: PR fluff or tech awesomeness?

Three guys shoot the breeze

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We asked three experts, an analyst, a sysadmin, and a vendor consultant, to give us their views on what, exactly, is the cloud OS, or cloud operating environment, and why would anyone need it? Their contributions are below.

Dale Vile, CEO of Freeform Dynamics

To answer this question we must consider the context. In a recent Reg reader study, participants highlighted a range of issues, mostly to do with fragmentation and disjoints, that stood in the way of optimum IT services delivery.

One option we put to them was a wholesale move to a more consistent public cloud environment, but this was generally rejected as being neither practical nor desirable.

Instead, when respondents were asked about their ideal environment they envisaged a new style of data centre that allowed a lot more freedom and flexibility in the way resources were managed and allocated.

Internal compute and storage capacity would be organised into pools, creating private clouds where new applications could be provisioned rapidly without the hassles and delays associated with dedicated system stacks.

Thereafter, dynamic workload management and orchestration would enable reallocation of resources on the fly, even automatically, to deal with changes in demand. Many told us that blending external cloud services into the mix, as a virtual extension of the physical data centre, would be an important part of the equation.

The idea was that applications would be placed wherever was most cost effective, based on business and technical requirements and constraints. In addition, applications would never hit a resource wall, and nor would they hog capacity that they weren’t using.

To make all this work requires a new kind of operating environment

All of this would in turn allow the emphasis to be switched from managing the operation of systems to business service delivery – something most IT organisations aspire to but few, to date, have pulled off effectively.

To make all this work requires a new kind of operating environment, one that helps to manage virtual resources – network and storage, as well as compute – in a coherent, flexible and scalable manner.

This includes both internal infrastructure and external services, with security, information management, service level and other types of policy managed centrally and applied consistently across the on-premise/cloud continuum.

The term "cloud OS" refers to the software layer that enables this operating environment to be created.

While some IT vendors can provide all or most of what is required in terms of server operating systems, hypervisors, cluster controllers, orchestration middleware, management tooling and so on, the cloud OS is not something you buy as a single product but something you create or assemble. The vendor (or vendors) will provide you with the technology you need, but it is up to you to deploy it appropriately.

It sometimes helps to think in terms of creating your own cloud operating system and to appreciate that you may need to make adjustments to the way you work to get the most from it, but that is another discussion.

Trevor Pott, sysadmin

The concept of the cloud OS lashes together various technologies under a single banner in an attempt to drive people towards a subscription-based consumption model for their computing needs.

The technology side of the cloud operating system marketing spiel is awesome. Building your own private clouds and being able to move workloads to the public clouds when and where you need it is a marvel of technology and something we should all investigate.

The technologies involved are – by 2013 standards – fairly commonplace. You need a hypervisor (or imaging system if you are doing metal as a service), management tools that don't suck, some sort of web server/database/scripting environment combo, an app store and preferably a collection of guest operating systems that are hypervisor aware.

Server 2012 was quite clearly designed with virtualisation and the cloud in mind

It is the last piece of this puzzle that Microsoft clearly has the lead on. Server 2012 is an amazing operating system that was quite clearly designed with virtualisation and the cloud in mind.

Microsoft's other server products (such as SQL) are increasingly integrating with Microsoft's public cloud offering (Azure) to enable you to move workloads from one to the other. Even Office integrates with Microsoft's cloud for document storage. Microsoft made its bet and is ploughing ahead.

I think Microsoft has done a great job of creating technologies that work well in both public and private cloud environments.  It is one of very few technology companies that  do the hybrid cloud in a manner I would consider "proper".

It has engineered hybrid-cloud awareness into its products at the application level, rather than trying to move private virtual machines to the public cloud and build a network bridge between.

Microsoft has spent the past 20-odd years convincing the world that we could own the software we purchased. This has become deeply embedded into our collective psyche.  But as a consequence, the world is not quite ready for a yearly subscription to access our most basic business-critical services.

Also, once we are all dependent on someone else's cloud, what prevents the provider from simply turning the knobs to drive up the average revenue per user as a quick and easy method of showing the perpetually demanded quarterly growth the stock market demands?

Oracle does it to its database customers. What proof is there that the same mentality would not apply to cloud providers?

By all means go forth and build your own private cloud; there are plenty of sound business reasons to do so. Cloud-like architectures provide greater flexibility and help abstract the complexities of physical systems administration from the day-to-day work of keeping the lights on.

But wait a while before committing your entire business to someone else's public cloud. Intermediation technologies that will allow consumers to commoditise public cloud services by transparently moving our workloads between available offerings are emerging. Allow time for these technologies to mature.

So, to conclude, the cloud OS concept can be a powerful business advantage and innovation enabler when it is you in control, but don't allow your company to become a hostage.

Cliff Evans, private cloud lead, Microsoft UK

When we refer to the cloud OS, we need to be clear what we are talking about. Cloud OS is not a product, it is a vision, built on the rich set of technologies we have developed over the past decade and are delivering today.

The cloud OS is about providing the best infrastructure to deliver modern applications and addressing IT teams’ need for scale, elasticity, rapid provisioning of services, security and control of data.

Historically, IT has always had sole ownership of the data centre in terms of new services delivered to the business. But with the growth of cloud services, businesses have the ability to provision their own services at a time that suits them.

This presents a great opportunity for agility but also poses a risk to business data – and ultimately may create a rather fragmented technology environment.

With the modern data centre approaches of the cloud OS concept, IT teams can operate at the speed that the business demands while maintaining corporate government and compliance rules.

A simple example of how this would work would be where a marketing department requires server infrastructure services to support a large-scale campaign to run for six weeks.

In the past IT would have had to purchase hardware, build and test the environment and deploy it, but after the campaign the hardware would sit idle until the next time an occasion to use it comes up.

In the modern data centre, IT can provision services quicker than hardware can be procured, deploying them to the cloud and shutting them down once the tasks they support are complete, with no redundant infrastructure to worry about.

We can also think about the complex portfolio of applications which you either build or acquire, deploy and then manage. These applications can span multiple environments or clouds, and IT has the complex task of tracking, managing, supporting and adding new capabilities to these services as they become available.

By 2015 the number of connected devices will be twice that of the global population

The role of IT in this scenario begins to extend beyond traditional infrastructure management and takes on a blended development operations role – something else enabled by the services offered within the cloud OS.

It is estimated that by 2015 the number of connected devices will be twice that of the global population, so enabling users to consume the IT services you provide will become even more important. These services will need to be personalised, secure and manageable – and, crucially, accessible across the broad range of devices and PCs people work with.

Building IT that is focused on the way people want to interact with technology helps drive up productivity by freeing business users from its inner workings and allowing them to focus on the task at hand.

That said, supporting multiple devices for IT risks increasing complexity and cost, something we all want to avoid. Microsoft’s approach is to anchor on the individual, providing services based on the person’s profile and tailoring those services depending on the devices used.

This is achieved through a fully integrated IT management environment that looks across users, devices, services, virtual machines, networking, storage and more.

The seamless mesh of devices and services should also provide insights that inform decisions. One way of achieving this is to incorporate rich data services into the known data an organisation generates to help business users to quickly understand trends and salient information.

An example of this would be a retailer analysing its sales of outdoor products and then blending that with climatology data to understand what happens to sales during adverse or seasonal weather. With this information the retailer can predict sales more accurately and adjust its supply, sales and marketing functions.

This level of detail really comes to life only with a rich set of data services that are updated and maintained in a highly agile environment such as the cloud.

IT departments are already starting to do these things and many of Microsoft’s customers are achieving the modern data centre enabled by the cloud OS through forward-looking integrations of Windows Server, System Center, SQL, Azure and Visual Studio.

This is enabling their IT departments to build a structure around the devices and services they will be delivering to their users, both now and far into the future. ®

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