A new report released this week by IT consulting and advisory firm Avanade claims that there was an impressive 320% jump in actual cloud computing service sign ups by enterprises since the beginning of this year. Based on surveys of 500 companies in over 17 countries, it's the most recent data point in a long list of ones that show that enterprises are considering their cloud options seriously.
One of the key lessons from this is almost certainly that the recession has been a major impetus for cloud computing as businesses consider both on-premises and hosted cloud services as a means to drive down their IT costs. And there's good news from those that have made the plunge. Over 90 percent of those surveyed consider their cloud computing implementation a success.
However there are still troubling signs of cloud computing's immaturity: downtime. Almost a third of the surveyed enterprises said they've experienced an unplanned service outage that cost them a day's lost business productivity. The recent EC2 blackout has also increased concerns around both the security and reliability of major cloud services.
This leads directly to two fundamental questions of choice. Choice in cloud providers and choice in cloud technologies. If enterprises have the ready ability to switch as easily as they'd like between external and internal clouds or amongst external providers, it would alleviate one of the major stumbling blocks to real adoption of cloud computing -- and all its attendant benefits -- for core IT functions in most organizations. But to do this requires interoperability that does not exist today.
The classic mantra: Standards drive choice. Choice drives the market.
Right now, the cloud computing market is in its early, formative stages and is still a landscape of proprietary products and approaches. Standards are largely de facto, though progress has been made in some quarters, as we'll see.
Today, organizations that commit to a particular cloud provider or vendor often risk exposure to all the classic issues around lock-in of their infrastructure, software, and data. Worse, the cloud computing platform wars have begun as major players enter the scene with competing solutions that don't work together, forcing you to choose on a basis of anything but interoperability. To be fair, the cloud standards aren't mature enough yet for providers to commit, but it's still a genuine issue.
Since the major brouhaha around the Cloud Computing Manifesto this last March about keeping the cloud as open and interoperable as possible, there has not been much noise about standards. It's worth looking at one of the best attempts to describe the open cloud playing field to perhaps understand why.
The goals of the manifesto were ambitious and egalitarian, namely:
1. User centric systems enrich the lives of individuals, education, communication, collaboration, business, entertainment and society as a whole; the end user is the primary stakeholder in cloud computing.
2. Philanthropic initiatives can greatly increase the well-being of mankind; they should be enabled or enhanced by cloud computing where possible.
3. Openness of standards, systems and software empowers and protects users; existing standards should be adopted where possible for the benefit of all stakeholders.
4. Transparency fosters trust and accountability; decisions should be open to public collaboration and scrutiny and never be made "behind closed doors".
5. Interoperability ensures effectiveness of cloud computing as a public resource; systems must be interoperable over a minimal set of community defined standards and vendor lock-in must be avoided.
6. Representation of all stakeholders is essential; interoperability and standards efforts should not be dominated by vendor(s).
7. Discrimination against any party for any reason is unacceptable; barriers to entry must be minimised.
8. Evolution is an ongoing process in an immature market; standards may take some time to develop and coalesce but activities should be coordinated and collaborative.
9. Balance of commercial and consumer interests is paramount; if in doubt consumer interests prevail.
10. Security is fundamental, not optional.
While some of the notions in the manifesto are indeed high minded and its release was somewhat controversial, the focus is correct in my opinion on topics such net neutrality, equal access (with a slight preference for consumers over companies), active discouragement of vendor lock-in, and maximum interoperability. If followed, these can give us real choice as well as actual business agility. Since the release of the manifesto, there have been a number of initiatives to create standards, enable choice, and ensure the openness of the cloud to the extent that is possible with today's provider landscape. They've just been largely under the radar.
It's also worth noting that the lack of standards always tends to favor the incumbents and some of the biggest cloud computing players are currently and consistently absent from cloud standards and interoperability initiatives. For now, buyers must be beware and take their own steps to abstract themselves from unwanted dependencies while the situation sorts itself out.
The cloud computing standards are coming
Fortunately, with some recent research I've been doing, it's now clear that the apparent lack of buzz and news about cloud computing standards often just reflects that hard work is being done, not the opposite. One of the most encouraging and consistently developing stories today is the standards work being done on the Open Cloud Computing Interface, which is creating a set of REST-based interfaces for the management of cloud resources including computing, storage, and bandwidth. One of my favorite aspects of OCCI is that it tries hard to be a minimal specification that is simple and straightforward, there's little or none of the WS-I megastandards here.
OCCI has been undergoing frequent and steady revision (read the latest iteration, version 5, released at the end of last month) and is coming together as a capable standard that is actively supported by Cisco, Sun Microsystems, Eucalyptus, Rackspace, GoGrid, and many other members. OCCI currently has my vote as the first major cloud computing standard that you're most likely going to see in a real-world cloud service near you in the future. What's missing? Support from the major vendors such as Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and Salesforce.
But OCCI is just one of many cloud computing standards. You can view a larger list of the current standards in development at Cloud-standards.org that includes efforts (or some cases, just involvement) from many of the usual suspects including DMTF, ETSI, NIST, OMG, SNIA, OASIS, The Open Group, and the Open Cloud Consortium.
When you combine the Open Virtualization Format along with OCCI you start to get a complete way to describe, deploy, and manage a cloud computing environment and begin to make it easier and practical to switch between providers that support enough of the base set of standards.
In an upcoming post, I'll take a look at the two key questions that will drive the interoperability and openness questions for the near future. These questions are 1) what is the absolute minimum set of standards required to have full open cloud computing portability and 2) what kind of cloud management efforts are emerging, either standards, products, or just practical techniques, that enable cloud interoperability for enterprises today.
How important are cloud computing standards for your cloud efforts? Please comment below.