The cloud and the data center: What you need to know
Cloud computing provides opportunities but also challenges to data center consolidation.
Even as government agencies migrate and consolidate data centers, their IT departments are keeping their eyes on the cloud. According to Deltek’s “Federal Cloud Computing Services Outlook, 2012-2017,” the demand for vendor-furnished cloud services will increase from $734 million in fiscal 2012 to $3.2 billion by fiscal 2017 at a compound annual growth rate of 34 percent. In addition, about half of all federal agencies are using software as a service, while 30 percent are tapping cloud-based storage. Another report from MeriTalk — “Cloudy with a Chance of Savings” — found that federal agencies saved an average of $5.5 billion by using cloud computing.
Arun Taneja, founder and consulting analyst at the Taneja Group, said this adoption is not surprising given the fact that end users have shifted the way they think about and consume IT, even in the public sector. “The business units want to say, ‘I need 20T of storage,’ and get it within 20 minutes. Then they want to be able to say, ‘Take this 20T of service away.’ IT as a service is a melding of technology and efficiencies, and its time is coming.”
This idea becomes more challenging when you consider that there are many flavors of cloud computing — software as a service, infrastructure as a service and platform as a service — and each has its own breakeven point, pros and cons.
Before migrating a single person, file or application to the cloud, agencies have to do some serious prep work, analyzing the long-term needs and doing cost modeling to see if a cloud-based option is the best route. For instance, in some cases, the organization might do better creating a private cloud, said Darin Stahl, a lead analyst at Info-Tech Research Group. “We recently did cost modeling for an agency and discovered that by year three or four, the agency would have been paying $2,500 to $3,000 per month for cloud-based storage. The CIO could purchase a [storage-area network], put it in a co-location and pay for the connection, which worked out much better from a cost perspective.”
Architecture is also a consideration. Many CIOs might prefer to use a single vendor for all their cloud needs, but only a handful of vendors have the capabilities to offer both platform as a service and infrastructure as a service. Software as a service often stands on its own. Getting three vendors and technologies to work together as well as with an existing data center can take some work, if it is possible at all. And new use cases and technologies seem to pop up on a daily basis, making integration more of a challenge.
One recent development is the use of the mainframe in the cloud because there are some services that simply run better on a mainframe. For example, some databases run smoothly on mainframes but would suffer latency issues in a distributed computing model, Taneja said. “My sense is that mainframes have a genuine place in the data center as they have continued to become very efficient,” he said. “I think they are going to continue to play a role but mostly driven by the applications.” In some cases, the mainframe will be integrated with distributed computing.
However, the main stumbling block, according to the MeriTalk report, continues to be security. Almost nine out of 10 federal CIOs and managers polled (85 percent) said security is the biggest obstacle to cloud implementation. But plenty of vendors and providers are working to make the cloud as secure as — if not more secure than — the stand-alone data center.
A bigger problem is the idea of interoperability, Stahl said. Can IT organizations extract data from the cloud for use in the data center or on another cloud-based service? The answer isn’t always yes, he said.
Switching providers can also present difficulties, which is why it’s important to discuss an exit strategy before contracting with a cloud provider, especially when sensitive data is involved. Once the data is removed, there’s one additional concern, Stahl said. If the organization needs to decommission a cloud-based server, how is the disk sanitized?
“The CIO has to ask, ‘What is the process and how do I know that my data is going to be wiped clean?’” Stahl said. “I am not anti-cloud, but the CIO needs to understand since he or she is the one who’s going to be held accountable.”