Monday, April 20, 2009

McKinsey Recommends Virtualization as first step to Cloud

In a study released last week, the storied consulting company, McKinsey & Company, suggested that moving datacenter applications wholesale to the cloud probably doesn't make sense – it's too expensive to re-configure and the cloud is no bargain if simply substituted for equipment procurement and maintenance costs. I think this conclusion is obvious. They go on to suggest that companies adopt virtualization technology in order to improve the utilization of datacenter servers from the current miserable average of ten percent (10%). I think this is obvious too. The leap that they hesitated to make explicitly, but which was called out tacitly in the slides, was that perhaps virtualization offers the first step to cloud computing, and a blend of internal plus external resources probably offers the best value to the enterprise. In other words cloud should not be viewed as an IT alternative, but instead it should be considered as an emerging IT architecture.

With virtualization as an underpinning, not only do enterprises get the benefit of increased asset utilization on their captive equipment, they also take the first step toward cloud by defining their applications independent from their physical infrastructure (virtual appliances for lack of a better term). The applications are then portable to cloud offerings such as Amazon's EC2, which is based on virtual infrastructure (the Xen hypervisor). In this scenario, cloud is not an alternative to IT. Instead, cloud is an architecture that should be embraced by IT to maximize financial and functional capability while simultaneously preserving corporate policies for managing information technology risk.

Virtualization as a step to cloud computing should also be viewed in the context of data, not simply application and server host resources. Not only do applications need compute capacity, they also need access to the data that defines the relationship of the application to the user. In addition to technology such as VMware and Citrix's Xen technology, enterprises also need to consider how they are going to abstract their data from the native protocols of their preferred storage and networking equipment.

For static data, I think this abstraction will take the form of storage and related services with RESTful interfaces that enable web-scale availability to the data objects instead of local network availability associated with file system interfaces like NFS. With RESTful interfaces, objects become abstracted from any particular network resource, making them available to the network where they are needed. Structured data (frequently updated information typically managed by a database server technology) is a bit trickier, and I believe solving the problem of web-scale availability of structured data will represent the “last mile” of cloud evolution. It will often be the case that the requirement for structured data sharing among applications will be the ultimate arbiter of whether an application moves to the cloud or remains on an internal network.

The company that I founded, rPath, has been talking about the virtualization path to cloud computing for the past three years. Cloud is an architecture for more flexible consumption of computing resources – independent of whether they are captive equipment or offered by a service provider for a variable consumption charge. About nine months ago, rPath published the Cloud Computing Adoption Model that defined this approach in detail with a corresponding webinar to offer color commentary. In the late fall of last year, rPath published a humorous video cartoon that likewise offered some color on this approach to cloud computing. With McKinsey chiming in with a similar message, albeit incomplete, I am hopeful that the market is maturing to the point where cloud becomes more than a controversial sound-byte for replacing the IT function and instead evolves into an architecture that provides everyone more value from IT.

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