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The Transition to Cloud Computing: What Does It Mean For You?

Availability is important for cloud services, but so is security

Cloud Computing on Ulitzer

We are standing on the threshold of a new transition in information technology and communications; a radical departure from current practice that promises to bring us new levels of efficiency at a vastly reduced cost. Cloud computing is full of potential, bursting with opportunity and within our grasp.

But, remember, that clouds always appear to be within our grasp and bursting clouds promise only one thing: rain!

As with all radical transitions, it takes time for the various pieces to fall into place. Some of them are already in place; some of them have yet to be considered. In this article, we will take a look at both and try to gauge where we are today and what work still remains. In addition, we will try to understand what this means to the various stakeholders involved.

Cloud composition
So what is the cloud and who are the stakeholders involved. There are many definitions available, but in simple terms, cloud computing involves providing an information technology service that is accessed remotely. This access can be over a public or private infrastructure, but for our purposes, it is probably useful to consider the Internet as a reference delivery infrastructure.

With this in mind, a simple cloud model would include the following stakeholders:

  • The cloud service provider
  • The cloud connectivity provider
  • The Internet
  • The user connectivity provider
  • The user

The cloud service provider is based in a data center (which we assume he controls for simplicity), where he has a number of servers running the cloud service being provided (e.g. a CRM system, a remote mail system, remote file repository, etc.). He is responsible for ensuring that the servers are up and running, are available at all times and that there are enough of them to service all the users who have subscribed to the service.

The cloud connectivity provider delivers Internet access connections to the cloud service provider and ensures that the cloud service provider has enough bandwidth for all of the users who wish to access the cloud service simultaneously. He must also ensure that these connections and the bandwidth requested are always available.

The user accesses the service remotely, typically through a web browser over the Internet. He also needs Internet access, which is provided by a connectivity provider (e.g. ISP), but only enough to ensure that he can access the service quickly and without too many delays. The connectivity provider ensures that his connection and required bandwidth is always available.

Which leaves us with the Internet. Who is responsible for this? The connectivity providers will typically have control over their parts of the network, but they must rely on other connectivity service providers to bridge the gap between them. The beauty of the Internet is that they do not have to know about all the actors in the chain of delivery. As long as they have a gateway to the Internet and the destination IP address, then the packets can be directed to the right user and vice versa.

The Internet itself is made up of a number of interconnected networks, often telecom service provider networks, who have implemented IP networks and can provide connectivity across the geographical region where they have licenses to provide services.

This brings the Internet and the cloud within the grasp of virtually everyone.

Cloud considerations
For cloud services to work, there are four fundamental requirements that need to be met:

  • There must be an open, standard access mechanism to the remote service that can allow access from anywhere to anyone who is interested in the service
  • This access must have enough bandwidth to ensure quality of experience (i.e. it should feel like the service or application is running on your desktop)
  • This access must be secure so that sensitive data is protected
  • This access must be available at ALL times

Some of these fundamentals are in place and are driving adoption of cloud services. The Internet and IP networking have grown to a point where it provides the perfect access mechanism. It is a global network, accessible from anywhere as Internet connectivity is now virtually ubiquitous. The bandwidth of the Internet is also not an issue - it is only a question of how much you are willing to pay for your connectivity.

Nevertheless, for users in particular, a modestly priced Internet connection provides all the bandwidth they need to access the cloud services they require.

So far so good!

Cloud service providers are extremely conscious of the fact that availability and security are key requirements and generally ensure that there are redundant servers, failover mechanisms and other solutions to ensure high availability. They also provide trusted security mechanisms to ensure that only the right people get access to sensitive data.

Still on track then!

That leaves the connectivity providers and the Internet itself. This is where more effort is needed.

Cloud compromised
IP networks and the Internet were designed for efficient transfer of data. The idea is that instead of establishing permanent connections like telephone call connections, where data will follow a pre-determined route every time, the data is routed through on a packet by packet basis on the best route available at the time, as determined by the network itself. There are a number of routes to the same destination, so even if one doesn't work, others will. What you can't guarantee is when data packets will get to the destination or in what order they will get there. If packets don't arrive as expected, then they are simply resent.

This works beautifully for data like web browsing, emails or file transfers, as it doesn't really matter when the data arrives as long as it gets there eventually.

But now, IP networks and the Internet are being used for all sorts of services like Voice-over-IP, Video-over-IP, Storage networks etc. For many of these services, time is critical and a guaranteed bandwidth is required. Many of these services are also sharing the same connections as normal data services, so there also has to be mechanisms to ensure that they are prioritized in relation to data services like those mentioned earlier.

The issue with this for cloud computing is that there is no mechanism for ensuring that a cloud service transported over the Internet will be given priority. In fact, it won't!

Cloud computing is in its nascent stages, but as the popularity of this approach grows, more and more people will access applications and services remotely leading to increased Internet traffic and congestion points as multitudes of users converge on a few critical cloud service provider points.

Up to now, this has not been an issue since there has been a healthy investment in networking capacity and congestion has been solved by "throwing bandwidth at the problem". But in these fiscally challenging times, this is no longer an option. Making more efficient use of the existing infrastructure is the order of the day.

Cloud certainty
To have confidence that cloud services are available at all times, it is not enough to wait for issues to occur and rely on fallback solutions. The utilization and performance of critical links must be monitored proactively to assure cloud service availability.

This requires dedicated network performance monitoring appliances at all points in the delivery chain. These appliances are stand-alone hardware and software systems that are capable of capturing and analyzing all the data traffic on a link in real-time, at speeds up to 10 Gbps. Each data packet is analyzed to understand where it has come from, where it is going and the application that produced it.

With this information in hand, it is possible to see the utilization of critical links, as well as the applications and users that are hogging the bandwidth.

For cloud service providers, these network appliances can be used to monitor their communication with the outside world, but it also allows them to demand visibility into their connectivity providers' network to understand how their traffic is being transported.

The connectivity provider can use these solutions to support the Service Level Agreements (SLAs) they have with cloud service providers and ensure that there is available bandwidth. They can equally demand the same level of SLA from their other connectivity providers in the Internet domain. Thus the chain continues.

Such network performance tools are available today and being deployed in many enterprise, data center and communication networks. However, they need to be regarded as an essential part of the cloud service delivery infrastructure.

Cloud confidence
Availability is important for cloud services, but so is security. Cloud service providers provide a number of mechanisms to ensure that only the right persons gain access to critical data.

However, this is not the only threat. Malware, denial of service attacks and other malicious activity are becoming more prevalent. This requires dedicated network security solutions, such as firewalls and intrusion prevention systems that can provide a fence around critical access points. These are primarily at the enterprise and data center where the users and cloud service providers reside, but can also be in the connectivity provider's network securing critical links.

Again, these network security solutions are stand-alone hardware and software systems that are capable of analyzing high-speed data in real-time, taking action and then sending clean data traffic on its way. The process is completely transparent to the user and cloud service provider.

Using these systems ensures that the doors are firmly closed to would-be intruders and should be mandatory at all critical access points in the cloud service delivery chain.

Cloud clarity
Many pieces of the cloud service delivery chain are in place. What remains are the key components to assure service performance, availability and network security.

Network appliance solutions exist to address these areas and they now have the performance to keep up with even the highest speed networks thanks to advanced network adapters capable of handling data traffic at up to 10 Gbps in real-time without losing packets. What remain is to make these network appliances a mandatory component in the cloud service delivery infrastructure underpinning clear SLAs that can assure performance and security across the delivery chain.

So don't let the cloud rain on your parade! Ensure that all the pieces are in place and enjoy the benefits that the cloud can provide and the new opportunities it will enable.

More Stories By Dan Joe Barry

Dan Joe Barry is VP of Marketing at Napatech. Napatech develops and markets the world's most advanced programmable network adapters for network traffic analysis and application off-loading. Napatech is the leading OEM supplier of Ethernet network acceleration adapter hardware with an installed base of more than 140,000 ports.

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Erik Sebesta 12/07/09 11:22:00 AM EST

You've summarized nicely why we went into business to become the leading cloud computing transition services company. :-)

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