Lack of cloud standards holds up enterprise progress

Problems with management, portability and interoperability are preventing firms realising the benefits of infrastructure on demand.

Problems with management, portability and interoperability are preventing firms realising the benefits of infrastructure on demand.

It has been a few years since cloud computing hit the IT marketplace and early adopters began testing the infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) cloud waters with Amazon Web Services’ Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2). By now, you’ve got the configuration just right, high availability is working well and you’ve started taking advantage of the benefits of an elastic scalable environment. You started small with new differentiated workloads and over time expanded to include multiple projects. As a result, your costs have begun to escalate and so you ask, could a move to different cloud service result in savings? There’s no yearly contract keeping you locked in and you can simply take your business elsewhere, right?

Unfortunately, it’s not that easy to move. The application programming interfaces (APIs) for another IaaS cloud are likely to be totally different, how you configure load balancing is not the same and let’s not even get started with network configuration. Despite the apparent freedom of IaaS pricing structures, switching services is surprisingly difficult. You’d think there’d be an easier way. But how? The answer is cloud standardisation. Unfortunately, we’re just not there yet.

Despite the excitement over the past few years, IaaS is still in the early stages of adoption and standardisation. And likewise, cloud standards are still in their infancy. Thus far, the standards development organisations (SDOs) and other standards-focused organisations have concentrated only on cloud terminology, common-use cases and best practices and business value to potential users — rather than meeting the needs of early adopters. Forrester has seen these early adopters struggle with:

  • Portability: Between APIs, price structure, load balancing, network and infrastructure configuration inconsistencies, moving from one provider to another isn’t easy. Although you won’t need to rewrite applications when moving from one environment to the next, the unique infrastructure configurations of each solution and APIs make switching solutions difficult. Currently, the only industry communities with portability on their radar are the Cloud Security Alliance (CSA) and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and right now they’re more focused on interoperability.
  • Management: Unfortunately, the cloud market lacks consistency in general management practices such as security, configuration and operations, which further complicates the vendor evaluation process and the switching of platforms. Organisations such as CSA, TechAmerica Cloud and the Distributed Management Task Force (DMTF) are working to address aspects of management standardisation but with little influence on the current market. Thus far, features, capabilities and architecture differ drastically from one service to the next, which further complicates the issue of centralised management between clouds. Some specific areas of focus include security, capabilities, storage, networking and load balancing.
  • Interoperability: Today, there are no full-service IaaS solutions that meet all enterprise needs and customisation introduces higher cost and performance penalties. Enterprise IT teams look to weave together cloud services to achieve the right combination of functions, security and price, but the lack of interoperability stops them dead in their tracks. Organisations including CSA, DMTF, IEEE and Global Inter-Cloud Technology Forum (GICTF) are currently working toward standardisation around interoperability.

Organisations vie to set cloud standards

Standards come from a combination of momentum and adoption of best practices. Proposed standards must be created from existing best and/or common practices and muster enough support to become a market standard. Hundreds of players have invested in standardisation so far, including: early market leaders; open source communities; and standards organisation contributors. Early market leaders become de facto standards, which ultimately matter most in the early stages as market share drives supplier R&D and enterprises like safety in numbers

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However, competitors rarely want to make themselves dependent on the market leader. Open source initiatives look to break the de facto hold by giving competitors a level playing field, but their relevance also hinges on market share. Forrester believes that each effort plays a role in the cloud standardisation process. De facto standards set expectations. Early market leaders set the expectations of the user for elements like design, process, functionality, pricing structure, cost model and ease of use.

Other solutions in the marketplace must match these basics and from here develop differentiation. Often, the top priority of the early leaders is staying on top, rather than supporting industry efforts toward standardisation — and although the market progresses through innovation, this often slows the standardisation process. Eventually, whether this solution stays on top depends on the development and momentum behind other market solutions and its ability to respond to customer feedback/demand and comply with new industry standards once they’re set.

Standards development organisations (SDOs) develop standards from existing offerings and best practices. Standards organisations, whether formal standards-making bodies like IEEE or standards influencers like CSA, take existing market solutions and user adoption best practices and attempt to solidify these elements into an industry standard. By definition, they are always in arrears of market innovation. Some level of collaboration between SDOs is essential to ensure that groups aren’t working on the same exact efforts with differing results, which could diminish momentum for both.

The competitive landscape

Amazon is the de facto leader in the public IaaS cloud market. Amazon’s technology and ecosystem footprint presents a significant challenge to competitors. But Amazon isn’t focused on industry standards. VMware holds most of the enterprise virtualisation market share which makes the APIs for its vSphere hypervisor another de facto standard. It is now extending those APIs into a superset called vCloud that it hopes can ride its hypervisor’s presence into IaaS cloud API de facto status. Finally there is OpenStack, which carries the open source flag today, but competition is fierce.

A growing number of other suppliers, such as Rackspace, Dell, HP, IBM, Red Hat and Citrix, are looking to break the AWS API stranglehold by joining together in open source communities. Right now, the community with the most momentum is OpenStack. While not a standards effort, the community looks to position the OpenStack software stack and APIs as an alternative standard.

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