Cloud computing – basic concepts

Information technology seems to progress in waves, with each new wave replacing (or at least extending) the previous generation of systems.  Most people would agree that cloud computing is the newest of these waves, and is arguably the largest and most all encompassing re-invention of IT to date.

Cloud computing is portrayed as a disruptive change in how computing and communications are delivered to, and used by, end users.  As with any such change, there is considerable room for innovation and many significant opportunities for both providers and customers.

Cloud computing is not just a new vision, and it’s not just a new product or a new service.  It’s actually all of these and more.  New market sectors are emerging, and each has to “cross the chasm” in order to achieve widespread adoption.  Today’s processes and technologies also need to adapt or they will perish.  Even IT education will need to be modernized to reflect changing roles and processes.

Here are a few of the basic things to keep in mind as you head towards computing in the “cloudy skies”:

1.  Various viewpoints

There are many stakeholders in the world of cloud computing, ranging from the individual user to the entrepreneur service provider to the service developer to the legal compliance auditor.  Each has a role to play and activities to perform, and each will see cloud computing differently.  It is important to distinguish among the requirements of each of the stakeholders.

2.   Scope and field of application

Determining what is and isn’t a cloud can be an important consideration.  It is important to decide what minimum characteristics are needed for an IT solution to be called a cloud.  Currently, many marketing efforts are aimed at positioning existing products as cloud compliant.  Eventually the term cloud computing may disappear as the range of cloud-based systems expands but for now we must understand where it fits and how it differs from today’s technologies.

3.  Defining cloud computing

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) was one of the first to attempt a definition for cloud computing.  See their Special Publication 800-145.

The emerging ISO/IEC/ITU DIS 17788 (Information technology – cloud computing – Overview and Vocabulary) standard defines cloud computing as a:

“paradigm for enabling network access to a scalable and elastic pool of shareable physical or virtual resources with self-service provisioning and administration on-demand.”     

This provides lots of latitude for implementing cloud-based IT solutions and ensures there will be lots of competition among suppliers for both the underlying resources and the provision of services.

4.  Reference models for cloud computing

Proposed reference models for cloud computing include both the NIST Cloud computing Reference Architecture (Special Publication 500-292) and the emerging ISO/IEC/ITU DIS 17789 (Information technology – cloud computing – Reference Architecture).

The NIST uses the following diagram to show the overall model for cloud computing:

Source:  NIST Special Publication 500-292

The ISO/ITU model is similar and includes concepts such as layering and views, cloud roles, cloud services, cloud activities and components, and cross cutting aspects.

5.  Cloud-based systems

Fundamental to cloud computing is the idea that what is delivered to the customer is services, not systems consisting of dedicated hardware and software. Under the cloud computing “covers” there may be many components that are shared by many customers.  This includes security services, administrative services, ecosystem services and performance services.  The vision is to make cloud IT pervasive and to achieve both the digital economy (for business) and the digital society (for the public) leading to the “Digitally Interconnected Society”.

6.  Cloud deployment models

Cloud computing includes the deployment of shared resources that can be “rented” for use as-needed.  Cloud deployments can be characterized by ownership, operator, location, complexity, target customers and services offered.  For example, a public cloud would typically be owned and operated by a service provider and would be located on their premises (Amazon or Google, for example).  A public cloud would usually target the general public with a specific service.  One good example is the Google Search Service.

7.  Cloud services

There is no single definition for a cloud service, although conceptually each service provides a measured amount of one or more capabilities at specified levels of quality at an agreed upon price.  Three types of service are currently being defined:

  • IaaS (Infrastructure as a Service) covers basic computing, storage and networking capabilities;
  • PaaS (Platform as a Service) provides capabilities for developing and deploying customer-owned applications; and
  • SaaS (Software as a Service) provides commonly used applications on a shared basis.

Offering services at one level does not imply that services are also offered for all lower levels, however.

8.  Overarching concerns

There are a number of overarching considerations that are generally applicable to any cloud computing deployment and which have a major impact on the success of any cloud-based system.  For example:

  • Governance and management:  auditability, governance, regulatory, privacy, security and service levels (SLAs);
  • Qualities:  availability, performance and resiliency;
  • Capabilities:  interoperability, maintainability, portability and reversibility

9.  Cloud-specific risks

As with any new technology, there are business risks associated with cloud computing, both for providers and customers.  While the most visible of these has so far been security, there are other important things to keep in mind, including:

  • Supplier quality, longevity and lock-in
  • Available expertise – technical, organizational and operational
  • Adaptation of business processes to available services
  • Financial management including changes in purchasing and variable bills
  • Exploitation and innovation

Sum total is that there are many things to consider as you prepare to include cloud computing in your IT solutions.  These vary according to the role you will play, the services that are being used and the maturity of your IT organization.  As part of developing your policies and roadmaps for cloud computing, I recommend creating a centre of cloud computing excellence to kickstart your journey.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada
Don Sheppard
Don Sheppard
I'm a IT management consultant. I began my career in railways and banks after which I took up the consulting challenge! I try to keep in touch with a lot of different I&IT topics but I'm usually working in areas that involve service management and procurement. I'm into developing ISO standards, current in the area of cloud computing (ISO JTC1/SC38). I'm also starting to get more interested in networking history, so I guess I'm starting to look backwards as well as forwards! My homepage is but I am found more here.

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