Quick now, which is more real: unicorns or high performance clouds (HPCs)?
Ask network administrators and CIOs perhaps four years into what was supposed to be a cloud computing revolution that was going to shattered traditional file storage mindsets and the cruel reality is that the majority would plunk down their wagers on unicorns.
Cloud, so far, just has not lived up to expectations -- it's slow, it has troubles housing huge enterprise critical data, and it is perceived as insecure. A key reason is that many historic clouds achieved their cost savings by using "older technology," said Jared Wray, CTO at cloud provider Tier 3. And "they have not excelled at network performance," he added, mainly for technical reasons.
But here is a sharp end of the 2012 reality: Little by little large cutting-edge companies and innumerable mid-sized enterprises (which have been much faster to embrace cloud, in part because they had lesser investments in legacy data centers) are moving more of their computing into clouds. But the clouds are not necessarily what were envisioned a few years ago. Upshots of the new-style 2012 clouds are better performance but also reduced cost savings.
What has been fueling this migration into the new-style cloud, suggested Bill Michaels, a spokesman with NEC, is "an exponential growth in data" coupled with persistent "concerns about security." The first fact is fuel for cloud, but the second, said Michaels, is prompting enterprises to put their data in private clouds, where they can call more of the shots around security.
"The organizations we see moving into the cloud are not using public clouds, they are using private clouds," agreed Kent Christensen, virtualization practice manager at DataLink, a data center firm. "They are not saving that much money against traditional data centers."
That is the rub: public clouds can provide highly cost effective computing where resources are shared, costs can be low as users pay as they go but, increasingly, the emerging solution that is gaining favor with large enterprise is what some experts call "blended," others call "hybrid" clouds. What that provides is a mix of traditional data center plus use of a private cloud plus limited use of a public cloud (the last mainly for stowing the least sensitive and business critical apps and data).
"Large companies find it hard to live 100 percent in the cloud," admitted Rajesh Ram, a vice president at cloud provider Egnyte. "But they are finding the solutions they want in a blended approach, a hybrid cloud."
More savvy than ever
Customers, at the same time, have gotten smarter about clouds. This has put pressure on cloud providers to up their game and to dramatically improve performance.
"Most customers have come to realize clouds aren't a silver bullet. They also now want to know the details: where is my data hosted, physically," said Robert Offley, CEO for CentriLogic, a data center operator. "And they are asking questions about uptime and performance."
"Cloud providers have wanted to disclose as little as possible," said Mark Seward, an executive with Splunk, which monitors network and cloud performance for its customers. But, added Seward, "customers have wised up. They are asking for log files. They are asking for visibility into SLA. They are asking for information about staffing: 'Who is working on their cloud, where?'"
The result, said Seward, is smarter customers equal smarter clouds. "The cloud offering definitely is maturing."
In that vein, cloud operators say they are finding ways to respond to customer demands for more robust and consistent performance. According to Sam Rehman, an executive with Grid Dynamics, "The high performance cloud requires detailed planning for bandwidth and for I/O loads. Can the cloud provide what enterprise needs? Yes. But it takes care in planning and it is not cheap. But it can be delivered."
Then, too, customers are also wising up about what they truly want from clouds.
"Private clouds are about efficiencies, not about saving money per se. Will you get savings? Yes, some. But what you will really get is more computing efficiency," said Lori MacVittie, an executive with networking company F5. "Cloud is not replacing data centers. It is augmenting them."
In most cases, for example, a cloud allows for much faster delivery of new resources than would expanding a data center. That alone is prompting more companies to deploy private clouds to cope with bursts of unexpected data and heightened demand for computing resources. To that end, clouds are the fast and easy answer, in many companies.
"This," she added, "really is the year enterprise begins to leverage the cloud."
As a busy freelance writer for more than 30 years, Rob McGarvey has written over 1,500 articles for many of the nation's leading publications ranging from Upside to the Harvard Business Review and The New York Times. He has covered mobility since the birth of the cellular industry and PCs since the 1980s. He writes often about networking and security issues. Somewhere in there he also files a regular "Mobility Matters" on mobile banking for the Credit Union Times. While he does most of his writing on a Samsung Chromebook, he admits to Macbook Air envy.