The Cloud As Platform

From Innovations, a website published by Ziff-Davis Enterprise from mid-2006 to mid-2009. Reprinted by permission.

Nearly a decade ago, a well-funded startup called Storage Networks promised to revolutionize the data center by moving enterprise storage into the cloud. Customers would keep their production data off-site in a highly secure facility and access it over the Internet. Unfortunately, the concept of cloud computing was unknown at the time, and the Internet itself was neither fast nor robust enough to permit large corporations to get comfortable with the idea. Storage Networks flamed out.

Now EMC is taking a run at a similar idea using the concept of cloud storage. Its technology, called Atmos, offers a glimpse of how far the cloud concept has come in a few short years and how its emergence as a new platform could drive a new wave of innovation.

As described by EMC, Atmos is a lot more than just a new breed of network storage.  The distributed technology uses an object model and inference engine to make intelligent decisions about where to store, copy and serve data.  With the world as its data center, Atmos is said to be able to flexibly move information to the point where it can be most efficiently served to the people who need it.  For example, if a cliffhanger election in Florida causes a surge of interest from local voters, election results data could be automatically routed to nearby servers.

Intelligent routing is just one of the intriguing ideas that the cloud supports, and it doesn’t have to apply just to storage.  In the future, virtual data centers will consist of computing resources spread around the globe.  Server power can be flexibly deployed to regions that need it. Backups could be administered at a high-level. For example, an organization could specify dual redundant backups for some critical data but only a single backup for less important information.  When the entire fabric is virtualized, this kind of flexibility becomes part of the landscape.

At this point, Atmos is still brochureware, and EMC isn’t sharing any customer experiences.  But I think the concept is more important than the product. Very large and distributed cloud networks can theoretically provide users with almost unlimited flexibility and economies of scale. Systems management, which is an expensive and technical discipline that very few companies do well, could be centralized and provided to all users on the network.  Customers should be able to define policies using a simple dashboard and let the inference engine do the rest.

We are only in the early stages of realizing these possibilities, but the emergence of real-world cloud computing platforms will usher in a new era of innovation.  Platform shifts invariably do that. Coincidentally, NComputing this week will announce an appliance that turns a single desktop PC into as many as 11 virtual workstations.  The company claims that the technology lowers the cost per workstation to about $70.

When applied to a cloud of servers, you can imagine technology like this scaling much higher.  Instead of having to run around supporting hundreds of physical workstations, IT organizations would only have to worry about a few powerful servers providing virtual PC experiences to users.  Move those servers into the cloud, and you can begin to apply best-of-breed security, resource and systems management to each user. The economies of scale become very compelling very fast.

The biggest leaps in technology innovation take place whenever platforms shift.  The cloud is now beginning to come into its own as a legitimate platform. Things should get pretty exciting from here.

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