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Nothing has impacted IT planning and operations as much as public cloud computing. Many enterprises already employ it, and nearly every enterprise expects to use it more in the future. However, IT teams and developers might under-realize the cloud's potential if they only view it as a hosted form of server consolidation. Organizations should assess other types of cloud services beyond hosted infrastructure, such as those for workflow and deployment management.
Hosting is fundamental to running applications in the cloud, but applications normally use services, provided by an operating system and middleware, to interact with their server resources. The cloud acts as a server resource, but offers other services that can expand its utility, create new business justification and accelerate adoption.
To supplement your cloud-hosted infrastructure, there are three services that are particularly valuable: workflow management, deployment management and mobile or Internet of Things (IoT) services. One way to understand the value of these services is to look at how the two dominant cloud providers -- Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Microsoft Azure -- address each.
The public cloud is scalable and elastic, both in terms of capacity and geography. But most applications today don't support these features. Dynamic registration of components and services, as well as load balancing and workflow automation, are essential for cloud computing. And while most enterprises have on-premises implementations of these features, they won't always be effective in the cloud.
Both AWS and Microsoft offer highly developed workflow management services as part of their public cloud, but they can be hard to evaluate, because they consist of many loosely related offerings, rather than one platform. Workflow features, for example, are separate from load balancing in Amazon's repertoire, while Microsoft couples them more closely.
To assess the value of workflow management features, consider the structure of your cloud applications. Developers can design applications that live entirely in the cloud around a general set of services that enhance infrastructure as a service (IaaS), such as workflow management. They can build hybrid applications that use the cloud as a front end, either with general tools for the front-end layer and a hand-off to the data center using a web-like interface, or use a platform as a service (PaaS) offering that aligns with their data center platforms -- such as Azure for .NET.
Tools for deployment and application lifecycle management (ALM) automation have been around for decades, but many businesses use only basic deployment and operations tools because their data center applications are deployed on static resources. When looking for additional cloud features beyond hosted infrastructure, ALM is another area to target.
AWS' portfolio includes OpsWorks for Chef-compatible DevOps and CloudWorks for management. AWS' CodeDeploy, CodeCommit and CodePipeline provide deployment and lifecycle management tools with a developer's bend. These tools are most helpful where an application lives entirely in the cloud, or where the front-end layer is cloud-hosted. Microsoft Azure, as a PaaS environment, takes a more hybrid-friendly approach if you're using Microsoft data center software. Azure tools support all phases of ALM, which can make cloud, including hybrid cloud, deployment and management more straightforward.
Mobility and IoT
Mobile and IoT services are another area to tap into beyond cloud-hosted infrastructure. Mobility and IoT present IT professionals with a new set of challenges. It's not just a matter of recognizing or securing a bunch of new devices; it involves a future driven by applications that know what we want because, in some way, they share our environment. There are few precedents for this dynamic and personalized future, and it seems cloud computing will play a greater role.
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There are three options for creating a mobile or IoT application in the cloud. One is to build the application from the basic web front-end tools that most cloud providers offer. The second is to use a specialized mobile or IoT service from a cloud provider. Amazon's IoT web service is a good starting point for IoT device support, and its Mobile SDK lets you build mobile apps more easily. The Azure IoT Suite, as PaaS, offers highly integrated IoT templates to facilitate development of your own applications, while Azure's Mobile Services and Mobile App Services do the same for mobile computing. Remember, though, that like all PaaS cloud services, Azure is most useful for a hybrid cloud and when organizations use Microsoft server platforms in the data center.
The third option is to combine workflow and other cloud-hosted application tools to build something more than a web front-end and more flexible than a cloud provider IoT offering.
Beyond AWS and Azure
As part of their hosted infrastructure, other cloud providers offer some of the three features above. IBM's cloud strategy is, in a sense, a mixture of AWS-like IaaS and Azure-like PaaS. SoftLayer, the IBM public cloud, is IaaS-based, but IBM has both professional services and partners to offer additional hosted features. These include load balancing, content delivery and development and management services. Salesforce has its own software as a service (SaaS) apps available as application programming interfaces for integration, and also offers the App Cloud to support development of custom apps, including mobile-driven applications.
The diversity of tools available from cloud providers, and the fact that some cloud features are most valuable when either integrated with public SaaS offerings or data center services based on the same PaaS environment, means you have to be careful when evaluating a cloud-hosted service for your apps. In most cases, these services won't be portable across clouds, which means that having multiple cloud providers or changing providers can create issues.
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