Earlier this month IBM announced that all its cloud services and software will be based on open standards and an open cloud architecture. Standards and open source software are necessary to help cloud computing achieve the kind of market success enjoyed by the Web, e-mail and other widely used Internet-based services. IBM’s announcement could in turn influence other IT vendors, application developers and users everywhere to similarly embrace open cloud architectures, much as was the case with IBM’s Web-based e-business strategy in the 1990s, and with its Linux initiative in the 2000s.
I personally think of cloud computing as the emergence of a new model of computing in the IT industry. This is important because since the advent of the IT industry over fifty years ago, this is only the third such model, the mainframe-based centralized computing and the PC-based client-server computing being the two previous ones.
Unlike the previous two models, cloud computing is totally centered around the Internet and related open architectures. Its most prominent characteristic is its ability to deliver all kinds of IT resources as-a-service over the Internet, e.g., computing, storage, software, platforms, applications and so on.
But the cloud’s impact goes way beyond the generation and consumption of computing. In January of 2012, IBM’s Institute for Business Value published The Power of Cloud: Driving Business Model Innovation, a study conducted with the Economist Intelligence Unit which surveyed nearly 600 business and technology executives around the world to learn how organizations use cloud today and how they plan to use it in the future. The study concluded that:
“Although cloud is widely recognized as a technology game changer, its potential for driving business innovation remains virtually untapped. Indeed, cloud has the power to fundamentally shift competitive landscapes by providing a new platform for creating and delivering business value. To take advantage of cloud’s potential to transform internal operations, customer relationships and industry value chains, organizations need to determine how best to employ cloud-enabled business models that promote sustainable competitive advantage.”
But, despite its huge potential, a 2012 report by Booz & Company, Standardizing the Cloud: A Call to Action, noted that the adoption and effectiveness of cloud computing is being limited by a number of challenges, chief among them being a lack of standards.
“Everyone understands the business value inherent in the promise of cloud computing. Yet in its current state, the cloud operates under any number of inconsistent, often incompatible standards - a situation that will likely hold back its ongoing development and limit the benefits the cloud offers enterprises looking to capture its potential for boosting flexibility, efficiency, and economies of scale.”
“A recent Booz & Company study of the cloud computing landscape demonstrates just how fragmented the effort to define standards has been. Resolving the situation will require a concerted movement on the part of cloud service providers and business customers alike to promote the technological, management, and regulatory standards needed to bring order to the cloud environment.”
The lack of enterprise cloud standards could lead to serious management complexities and costs, not unlike what happened with client-server computing in the 1980s and 1990s. Different departments within an enterprise started to bypass the central IT organization and acquired their own computers for their own applications. Initially, it was easier, faster and less expensive to develop and operate new applications in such distributed systems because there was no central IT organization to slow you down with enterprise-wide architectures and processes.
But over time, these companies ended up with large numbers of relatively isolated and underutilized departmental servers, each dedicated to its own applications and supported by its own staff. Eventually, this made it difficult to share processes and consolidate IT resources in order to improve the quality and reduce the costs of the overall IT infrastructure. We need open cloud architectures to avoid a similar proliferation of isolated cloud islands across an enterprise or industry ecosystem.
As part of its cloud announcement, IBM unveiled SmartCloud Orchestrator, its first product built with the OpenStack software. OpenStack is an open source cloud operating system designed to control large pools of compute, storage and networking resources running on standard hardware throughout a datacenter. It includes the OpenStack dashboard, which provides administrators and users with a graphical user interface to provision and manage cloud-based resources, as well as a number of shared services to make it easier to implement and operate cloud-based applications.
IBM is a founding member and major sponsor of the OpenStack Foundation, which was recently launched to promote the development, distribution and adoption of the OpenStack platform. According to its website, the Foundation has already attracted over 7,000 individuals and 850 different organizations in nearly 100 countries. You can learn more about the OpenStack platform and community in this tutorial video by Foundation COO Mark Collier.
Beyond providing access to IT hardware and software as-a-service, cloud computing is already playing a major role in providing all kinds of apps-as-a-service to huge numbers of mobile devices, - e.g., smartphones, tablets, e-readers - where the underlying hardware and software are well hidden from the users. The users of such apps do not care about IT. They just want access to easy-to-use apps of all sorts, including consumer services, business services, financial services, government services, health care services, educational services, and so on.
The combination of cloud computing and Service Oriented Architectures (SOA) can similarly offer developers of complex software solutions all kinds of modular-components-as-a-services to help them design and build their solutions out of pre-existing components. Modern engineering practices - especially those used for developing complex systems or objects like airplanes, skyscrapers and cars, - are built around the concept of standard, modular components. Over the past decade, SOA has introduced standard, modular, interchangeable components to the world of software.
The combination of SOA and Cloud will enable developers to build their complex solutions by drawing upon pre-defined business components with well-defined interfaces from multiple sources within and beyond the enterprise. As has been the case with complex physical objects, we can expect the formation of industry-specific and cross-industry supply chains, whose SOA-based modular business components will be available over the Internet as cloud-based services.
In the press release, IBM also mentioned its work with the Cloud Standards Customer Council as part of the efforts to promote open cloud standards. Launched in April of 2011, the Council now includes over 400 members from a variety of industries. With the objective to “provide cloud users with the opportunity to drive client requirements into standards development,” the Customer Council could play a major role in the development of industry-specific cloud standards.
Over the past twenty years we have learned that IT solutions are much more useful and powerful when built upon open architectural foundations jointly developed by a community of expert developers and users. We can expect that open standards and open source software will have a similar positive impact on the evolution of cloud computing.