Published: 23 Feb 2011
As we make the cognitive leap from old ways of doing IT to new ones, a consistent theme in private cloud has emerged: it's all about the applications.
IT professionals are figuring out that, while data center consolidation and virtualization can be rewarding and even necessary elements of improving IT operations, application delivery remains the primary focus. It's sometimes worked around with great success, but often it’s the elephant in the room.
Virtualization is a great foundation for cloud, but it’s absolutely not a panacea.
Christian Reilly, IT professional
As part of the transition to cloud computing, companies are moving to a binary model where some IT needs are served by cloud platforms and others simply aren’t. Most client server apps can be virtualized to some degree, but others, like massive databases running financial systems, were designed before virtualization was mature. Due to performance issues, these cannot be virtualized.
"We have virtualized everywhere it is appropriate," said Dmitri Ilkaev, VP of enterprise architecture at Thermo Fisher Scientific. Ilkaev said his company had been opportunistic in its use of virtualization, deploying it where it made sense, but some of the company’s core business applications did not go into tidy, standardized and virtualized stacks.
Others did; testing and development, for example, are a big part of Thermo Fisher Scientific's business. A maker of largely digital and highly complex scientific instruments, the company has branched out into laboratory services and software that supports its equipment. Ilkaev said one of the initial pushes for cloud computing-style IT automation was to be able to sell internal applications as a service.
Ilkaev called private cloud a natural extension of the consolidation and virtualization that Thermo Fisher Scientific had already done. He noted the company already used Software as a Service (SaaS) products extensively, like Salesforce.com, and said that he'd eventually lose interest in infrastructure; it was going to be primarily about delivering applications and support in a hybrid model.
Banking giant lukewarm on private cloud
Other enterprises take a more conservative approach. Sherrie Littlejohn, who heads up the enterprise architecture and strategy group at Wells Fargo, said that the banking giant had looked at cloud infrastructure with interest but found no pressing need for it. Plus, the bank’s outlook on IT was dominated by security.
"We have a gazillion servers, processes up the wazoo in how you get one, and security is definitely number one (or zero)," she said.
Littlejohn said Wells Fargo could see a point at which it might want to put some business critical applications in a cloud service, but it already operated layer upon layer of fairly advanced management systems and virtualization for its infrastructure. There wasn’t a competitive edge that she could see yet in simply turning to cloud computing.
Wells Fargo does use Salesforce.com, along with several outside services to operate its websites and online services, but Littlejohn said that use case and the security implications were pretty cut and dried. When Wells Fargo is ready to build a private cloud, which would essentially involve giving internal users more leeway in provisioning their own IT, Littlejohn said that the company will do it in a deliberate manner. She said delivering business services and security took precedent over new technology.
“I don’t see us jumping into this," she said. "We will test and learn as we go; for banks in general, we’re going to be very cautious.”
Factoring applications into the cloud move
Of course, for any organizations that have been around and want to redo IT with an eye on cloud's benefits, applications are a big part of the problem.
Honeywell International in the UK is retiring 12 terabytes of data in a mainframe they don’t need because the company is, almost literally, burning money operating its data center. "Can you imagine the server load? The backup requirements for that?" said Sai Gundavelli, CEO of Solix.
More on apps in the cloud:
Gundavelli sells data management tools and manages the data move from ancient hardware to cloud storage for Honeywell. He says that application cruft is endemic; it’s often the result of numerous acquisitions or cowboy coding. It is often also the first thing an IT organization stumbles across when undertaking a large-scale reorganization, like shifting to virtualization or cloud.
“A lot of times when you run a data center across the globe, you end up with a surprising number of applications," he said. "It’s like when people buy a garage, they keep putting things in, putting things in. They never take them out," he said. He noted that German manufacturer Bombardier Inc, another client, had identified nearly 2,000 applications it wanted to retire in the process of virtualizing and modernizing its infrastructure.
Even successful private clouds feel the application impact
And as often as not, even a successful implementation of private cloud can simply miss the mark when it comes to applications.
Christian Reilly, an IT professional working for a large multi-national, told an audience during a closed presentation that five years ago it took 42 days to deploy an application. Even as his organization felt its way into the cloud very early, the monumental shift over to converged infrastructure, worldwide communication, workspace virtualization and even an iPhone app for one popular business application (a time sheet for agents in the field) didn’t touch business as usual. “Anyone want to guess how long it takes now? 42 days,” he said.
What went wrong? Well, nothing. Infrastructure is solved; they’ve learned the lessons of massive online service delivery from the likes of Google, YouTube and Amazon. They’re doing quantitatively more with the same IT budget, but nobody can afford to rewrite the apps overnight for cloud.
That’s where the actual work takes place, Reilly said: “Virtualization is a great foundation for cloud, but it’s absolutely not a panacea.”
More than 90% of Reilly’s IT organization is virtualized, but it’s not automated in a way that matters to application delivery. What is missing is how to tie those application services together at a level where resource provisioning "just happens." He’s looking at server templates, preconfigured stacks, anything that can make cloud more useful than simply turning on a server.
I don’t see us jumping into [cloud].
Sherrie Littlejohn, head of the enterprise architecture and strategy group at Wells Fargo
Reilly said his application portfolio was the first thing he had to work around when trying to get consolidation moving. He went after client server applications first, standardized the virtualization platform on Xen and eventually brought everything under one central authority, which he called critical to taming security.
He noted that you either had to have control over the user or control over the back end, and it was clear where IT could be more effective.
"You can’t really have both in our experience; if you have the Wild West in the front end and the Wild West in the back end, you’re going to have the Wild West in the middle," he said. "That’s got to be avoided, or there won’t be any cloud in your enterprise."
The fact that users have access to all sorts of high-powered technology delivered as Web services from the likes of Google and Yahoo! meant that they were more than ready to see the same in the workplace. Reilly said most enterprise IT was woefully behind the times, and enterprise applications reflected that.
It’s unclear what has to change to make the enterprise application landscape catch up to the consumer experience. It may just take time and continued examples of businesses getting more done with less money. Most likely, we’ll see the same trends: SaaS feeding the shift in how users think about IT at their job, leading to small efforts and eventual transformations. Another decade might not be unreasonable to see the IT landscape transformed.
Carl Brooks is the Technology Writer at SearchCloudComputing.com. Contact him at email@example.com.