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Which Came First, the Server or the Network?

Moving beyond commodity clouds

Cloud computing, developed more than eight years ago, has become a multi-billion dollar segment of the IT services market. However, the original server-centric model, used to provide low cost computing, is giving way to a new network-centric model that will deliver better performance and control at an even lower cost.

According to Gartner's Forecast Overview: Public Cloud Services, Worldwide, 2011-2016, 4Q Update, the public cloud IaaS market is expected to grow by 47% - from $6 billion in 2012 to $9 billion in 2013. As this market has grown, hundreds of service providers of every size have stepped forward to offer "best-effort" cloud services. While a market for these services clearly exists, most of them don't meet the enterprise requirements for a more reliable and secure computing platform. The challenge lies in end users having to use server virtualization technologies to solve problems better addressed by networks.

Tens of thousands of companies have already adopted some form of the cloud. In fact, the overall public cloud computing market, including Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS), IaaS and other related services, is expected to grow from US $110 to $131 billion from 2012 to 2013 with a CAGR of 41.3% through 2016. These numbers are significant, but when placed in the context of overall IT spending, cloud computing still represents less than 3% of the US $3.7 trillion spent on IT per year.

Why isn't cloud computing being adopted more quickly? One reason is that the server-centric approach that dominates much of the market today makes it challenging for enterprises to mirror their on-premise IT infrastructure in the cloud. Initially, cloud services took on a grid-type computing model to enable horizontal scaling, but this topology proved to offer little control to users in terms of where their servers were deployed. The only networking capabilities came in the form of having to install a virtual network appliance or deploy a hypervisor-based network on a virtual machine to act as a load balancer, firewall or other network device. As a result, enterprises were forced to architect "around" the cloud environment instead of integrating with the systems and security already in place. This architecture-level obstacle kept many enterprises from utilizing the cloud for business-critical applications, and instead focused its use on test/dev, temporary workloads, analytics and Big Data processing.

To improve performance and lower cost for cloud, some providers are changing the way cloud resources are configured and provisioned by offering a more intuitive network-centric approach. This allows enterprises to better align their on-premise enterprise architecture with their cloud environment. In addition to the ability to manage networking hardware at the "networking layer," network-centric architectures can also have a positive effect on overall cloud performance. In a recent cloud server benchmarking study, the Tolly Group found that performance varied significantly between providers. In some cases, organizations might need three to six times more resources from one provider versus another to handle the same workload.

Improved performance has led providers to offer SLAs that are truly enterprise-class and make cloud use even more attractive to businesses whose chief concern was reliability. A higher performing cloud can in turn support resource-hungry applications more cost-effectively.

For enterprises that opt to partner with cloud service providers that take this network-centric approach, the benefits are numerous. First, automation at the network layer enables users to self-provision these elements before they assign servers, instead of the other way around. Removing the need to "BYOS" - bring your own security - or re-architect applications can reduce the time it takes to actually deploy and manage the environment over the long term. By segmenting cloud servers using VLANs and firewalls, existing security can be extended to the cloud environment and managed on an ongoing basis through a UI or API.

When cloud computing was introduced, no one asked the essential question: What comes first: the server or the network? By pursuing a path focused on individual units of computing capacity as opposed to the way that an enterprise organizes their IT on-premise, cloud has become more complicated than it ever should have been. This same paradox contributes to the concerns that companies voice over security and reliability. Though the same end can be achieved by either a server-centric or network-centric approach to cloud architecture, starting at the network and building out goes a long way toward simplifying integration and improving performance while controlling cost.

More Stories By Keao Caindec

Keao Caindec is CMO of the Cloud Solutions Business Unit at Dimension Data. He is responsible for marketing at Dimension Data's Cloud Business Unit. With more than $5.8 billion in annual revenues, Dimension Data provides global ICT and systems integration solutions. Prior to Dimension Data, Caindec was SVP and CMO of OpSource, a leading cloud and managed hosting provider acquired by Dimension Data.

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