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The IT clouds: IBM, Microsoft and Sun

Find out how cloud computing solutions from major IT vendors, such as IBM Computing on Demand, can offer increased compatibility to enterprises already working closely with the vendor's products.

Cloud computing offerings from the major IT vendors should be of interest to enterprises working with those vendors in their IT operations. IBM, Sun and Microsoft's "IT clouds," in particular, are built from the same tools available to their customers and thus provide a compatible architecture for public and private clouds. While generalized cloud computing platforms like Amazon's EC2 can normally host applications for all three of the solutions mentioned, there are benefits to obtaining cloud computing services directly from the vendor.

IBM Computing on Demand (CoD) or "Blue Cloud" is an enterprise-focused cloud computing offering that can cross over between public and private cloud applications. IBM CoD offers Intel Xeon, AMD, and IBM System p Power5+ platforms: Linux is available on all platforms, Windows is supported on the AMD platform and IBM's AIX (UNIX) is supported on the System p. The IBM CoD includes flexibility in system and storage interconnection, including the ability to connect to VPNs, terminal servers and other communications devices. Scheduling and management tools for the CoD cloud are strong, as are its security features.

CoD users can store their software images, in the same vein as an Amazon Machine Image, on a spot in the management node. From there, they would be committed to a system from the resource pool on demand. Application development is essentially the same as it would be for a dedicated system/server, and all programming languages supported by the selected OS can be used. General deployment tools are also more than adequate at migrating applications from a local system to the cloud.

The IBM CoD is offered for a base membership fee plus usage, which can range from hours to years of commitment. The pricing is reported to be higher than that of Amazon EC2, and the offering appears to be targeted primarily at IBM data center customers looking for backup or elastic incremental capacity. Because IBM uses its own distributed systems and systems management tools for CoD, it is completely compatible with private clouds created using the same tools. IBM also offers consulting in private cloud computing deployment, the use of CoD and hybrids of the two. For IBM users with relatively large requirements for high-availability cloud computing services, this is a highly regarded option.

Microsoft's Azure, based on Vista and .NET technology, includes both cloud computing and cloud-hosted extension services. It also supports public and private cloud computing plans. Azure is based on Windows Azure, a cloud operating system that is compatible at the application level with Microsoft Windows. Windows Azure resembles a Windows server environment, in that it supports .NET, SQL, SharePoint, and Dynamic CRM. Live Services, the Microsoft development center, provides special tools for the construction of cloud- or SaaS-like applications. The service is in Community Preview now, with an expected release in 2009, and no pricing has been announced. It is expected to be equal to or slightly higher than Amazon EC2, which would reflect the additional software tools included in Azure.

Microsoft-compatible applications can be written and deployed in a very similar fashion as they would on a Windows server. A CGI interface is provided to allow for the execution of applications written in a non-Microsoft language; developers must include the necessary run-time libraries, and the CGI interface puts some limitations on the nature of the applications that can be supported. Persistent and non-persistent storage is available, and Table and Queue services are also provided. The tools associated with .NET, SQL and other languages are also available for developers. The software development kit is available to developers, and they can also create an account that provides access to CoD for development and testing.

Microsoft's CoD is unquestionably a superior cloud strategy for users who are committed to Microsoft Windows Server tools and applications, particularly SharePoint Services, along with any users looking to develop or use Live Services. For Windows shops, it could prove the optimum choice in cloud computing.

Sun Cloud, like IBM's offering, is available both in public and private cloud forms. The public Sun Cloud is based on Sun Solaris and a wide variety of open-source tools, making the Sun approach unique in that respect. One could argue, in fact, that the primary benefit of the Sun Cloud comes from its use of Solaris and the other open-source elements.

Solaris (OpenSolaris is the current portable form) is Sun's variant of UNIX, and it claims the largest library of available applications. Solaris has been aggressively optimized for real-time applications and virtualization. It has its own concept of "containers" that provide direct operating system virtualization support, but Sun also extends to support Hypervisor. Sun's NFS/ZFS is a file system designed for both enormous files and the ability to support distribution of file system components on the network. The open source Hadoop software is also available to be used for multi-system number-crunching and analytic applications.

Development for Sun Cloud will depend on the nature of the application. The deployment of cloud tools like Hypervisor and Solaris containers will allow the hosting of application images from multiple platforms, and native Solaris applications can also be developed and deployed. In either case, cloud management and deployment tools will help through the process, but early documentation remains fairly sparse. Right now, Sun Cloud is in beta and early-user signup; the pricing is expected to be comparable to Amazon EC2. Because of the Oracle acquisition of Sun, there may be changes in the direction taken by Sun Cloud, and so it will be important to review the latest technology and business requirements before committing to use it.

There will certainly be debate over whether more specialized "IT clouds" like these three are a better solution for users than a generalized or an application-centric cloud. For users whose cloud computing needs are linked to their own data center architecture, it is likely that a cloud computing offering based on the same primary vendor will be among the best options.

Tom Nolle, is president of CIMI Corporation, a strategic consulting firm specializing in telecommunications and data communications since 1982. He is a member of the IEEE, ACM, Telemanagement Forum, and the IPsphere Forum, and is the publisher of Netwatcher, a journal in advanced telecommunications strategy>

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