The cloud

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11 January 2012 | 0

"There’s gold in that thar’ cloud!"
"Are you sure? I thought clouds only had silver linings."
"Let’s not quibble, silver or gold, it’s all money."

Can you find gold in clouds? Depends on the cloud. There’s certainly a belief that, for cloud computing at least, there’s money to be made if you’re ready to make it. The expectation is many companies with big IT investments are going to move their internal infrastructure to the private cloud and then, from there, towards a hybrid cloud where they expand their cloud boundaries onto public infrastructure.

Just getting there may well cause a gold rush as many of them embark on a round of investment in storage and blade server infrastructure in a final round of investment before moving to public cloud. Channel partners in a position to consult, advise and steer businesses along each step of the path should expect to play a powerful role in this progression.

Public private partnership
That’s the theory in any event. Francis O’Haire, director for technology and strategy at DataSolutions, isn’t entirely convinced. "I don’t really believe that medium to large companies will move all of their IT to public cloud any time in the foreseeable future, if ever," he says. Hold those wagons, maybe we’re not going anywhere. Instead, he believes many companies will adopt certain cloud-based services and applications as appropriate, and implement some cloud-style technologies within their own data centres in order to better serve the business. "I don’t see them giving up all of their systems and applications to the public cloud."

 

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But if the final destination may well be different, O’Haire does agree that a hybrid model is likely to be the more likely outcome "where critical systems, applications and data remain on private infrastructure but interact securely and seamlessly with public cloud hosted services".

Private cloud adoption is "just a progression of what organisations have been doing for several years now in terms of consolidating and virtualising their computing and storage resources", he argues. Some might call it private cloud, but "I wouldn’t go so far as to call it that myself in the majority of cases".

The sense of a natural progression is something picked up on by others. Kevin Bland, Citrix channel director for UK, Ireland and South Africa, sees what’s happening now as part of a process where a new computing model is born every few years but "behind it sits layers of ‘old models’ ticking away, delivering valuable services to the business." He suggests that while things may change on the surface, they remain the same at a deeper level.

"Sometimes this is because the business is more scared of disruption than realising the new benefits of greater flexibility by changing the way things are done. Sometimes it’s because of security, ownership or business risk. Whatever the rationale, a heterogenous future still awaits us," he states.

Or at least it was, Bland thinks things might be a little bit different this time around. "This year’s fashion is slightly different," he claims. "It’s affecting more than just the software decisions in the computer room, more than just the hardware architecture it sits on. The cloud offers a move from the physical to the virtual and the promise of flexibility, agility, scalability, but with none of the management and support headaches. Theoretically, there’s the ability to walk away should the business change or the relationship become stale or uncompetitive."

Cloud may well offer all those things but how do you get from there to here (or vice versa)? Bland accepts that trying to bridge the cloud for enterprises without disrupting the infrastructure "is a solution that requires forward thinking, understanding of business challenges/needs and technology that is designed for the job". But he stresses that the real opportunity is about more than selling blades and storage, it’s about areas such as consulting, understanding the challenges and designing solutions that can address them.

"If the channel is serious about offering cloud solutions to customers, it is important to realise cloud services follow a separate model and cannot be treated as simply another offering," he argues. "The real value is in consultancy, advice and skills to help organisations make an effective transition to cloud services, rather than simply offering storage solutions."

Not many would argue with that point of view. O’Haire says most of Data Solutions’ reseller partners are merely doing what they’ve always done best and acting as a trusted advisor to their customers as they guide them to using technology to increase productivity and reduce costs. "In most cases that still involves helping them consolidate and virtualise on premise, mobilise their workforce and now also to look to cloud services as an option in some appropriate cases," he adds.

There’s a big question here over whether people are trying to walk before they can run. Certainly, O’Haire suspects this could be the case. "There is still a huge amount of work there for these partners in just bringing the benefits of virtualisation to customers in Ireland," he claims. "This is an absolutely necessary first step for these organisations before they can consider running their own systems using private cloud methodologies."

Migration
Tanya Duncan, managing director at Interxion believes the next step after virtualisation "is migration to private cloud", particularly for areas like departmental billing and shared resource. Areas of primary focus include application development and testing, back-up and disaster recovery.

Renaissance director Michael Conway, however, says private cloud doesn’t have to follow after virtualisation. While he agrees many partners are helping customers move from old style traditional server-based infrastructure towards virtualisation and describes this as a natural progression, they’re not duty-bound to follow that sequence before moving to private cloud infrastructure.

Yes, customers are moving towards private cloud infrastructure, but there may well be some that have jumped over the stage of virtualising infrastructure in-house and gone straight from server to virtualisation in a private cloud environment. They realise they need to do something but the investment never took place in virtualisation, so they are looking at delivering the virtualisation environment in a cloud-based architecture instead.

Peter Trevaskis, enterprise marketing manager at Dell Ireland, says virtualising infrastructure on-premise might not be a necessary step on the road to cloud but agrees with Conway that "it seems to be a natural progression". Channel partners are doing "an awful lot of business on the virtualisation front", he adds. If virtualisation is perceived by many customers as a natural progression to the cloud then channel partners that have delivered virtualisation are probably in a strong position to work with customers as they migrate to the cloud.

Duncan at Interxion is unconvinced by Conway’s suggestion virtualisation can be bypassed. She agrees that distributors, VARs, SIs and hardware manufacturers are investing in reference architecture for private cloud implementations, but the business case for change still needs to be worked through, "as the legacy investment in virtualisation still has a cycle to run".

She agrees with O’Haire that the likeliest scenario is a hybrid private/public model because "data sovereignty and protection will continue to prohibit a complete migration to public cloud".

The one thing Conway is absolutely adamant about is that channel partners need to make sure they are able to advise and help customers move beyond the traditional server-based on-premise model: "The old style reseller or partner plugging away at the old stuff will really be left behind. They’re probably going to suffer and lose a lot of their clients."

And customers that are persuaded by partners to maintain investments in traditional infrastructure "are not going to thank their partners at all for pushing them down a route that’s not delivering added value or going to develop their business in the long term".

Adaptation
That’s something Martin Cullen, Microsoft heartily concurs with. "This is not a time for denying what’s happening in terms of market changes," he stresses. There’s a hybrid world that everyone has to adapt to and partners need to adjust their business to work across both parts of it. There is an emphasis on partners providing services around the hybrid world and he believes many of them are looking to learn and understand the role they can play.

The profile of what the customer is looking for is different, he argues, and a lot of that is driven around managed services and the capabilities partners can bring to the table that the customer doesn’t have.

Interxion’s Duncan believes many partners and vendors are making moves to be ready for the opportunity that private cloud presents. "There is a rush to establish platform dominance with different players coming from their different areas of competitive strength," he observes. "The Tier 1 vendors are placing bets and "co-opting" across all layers of the value chain while Tier 2 vendors are focusing on the existing installed base."

Channel partners are either building their own private cloud solutions for customers or using third parties to provide a white label solution. One thing they need to take account of is that the ecosystem they put in place is properly connected and the user experience "is not impeded through network performance". Interxion is very clear that "connectivity is key to ensure application performance and minimise bandwidth bottlenecks, particularly as demand for service increases".

Conway says there is no reason why smaller resellers can’t get involved because even if they don’t have their own infrastructure "they do have an infrastructure they can sell". And the economies are often very clear, he argues. If the customer wants proper technology and a proper environment, there’s no reason why a reseller can’t get provide it by finding somebody to host it and look after it on their behalf.

By providing white label cloud, smaller resellers can give customers the service they need but they will feel more comfortable because it is fronted by the reseller. This brings the channel partner closer to the customer, putting the reseller in a better position to work with the client in the long term. Conway says this is a scenario where "everybody is a winner" because cloud doesn’t have to be restricted to a large scale organisation.

Caveat vendor
Is there likely to be a "gold rush" though? Haire believes that if there is such a thing in terms of data infrastructure sales "it will be for the vendors when cloud providers are building out their infrastructures and not necessarily for resellers supplying customers". But he thinks there is a "huge opportunity" for the channel because its role will become more important to customers. "Organisations will need more help than ever when it comes to taking advantage of the current trends in cloud, consumerisation and mobility," he argues.

Conway is a tad sceptical over whether the shift to cloud computing is going to provide a big pay day for channel partners. There may be a "potentially decent pay day" from some customers but that’s because they haven’t invested for a period of time and there’s "a pent-up lack of investment". He refers again to those that might seek to jump the in-house virtualisation stage in favour of virtualisation in a cloud-based architecture. Partners may have missed out on the virtualisation pay day from those customers when a lot of other businesses were virtualising and they could be in line to get one now. But it’s probably more a case of payment deferred than anything else.

Duncan at Interxion says it’s not a question of if there will be a gold rush or not (she thinks there will be) but more significantly who will end up reaping the rewards. "Whether the resellers have the capital (financial or intellectual) to invest in developing private cloud infrastructure or to adapt their business model to become cloud brokers remains to be seen."

Paul Kelly, Ireland country manager at COMPUTERLINKS, is happy to promote the benefits for resellers in developing relationships with cloud service providers "as the quickest and most reliable option" to deliver the infrastructure and technical support for them to "offer the capacity and resilience their customers may need". The distributor has focused on the area for a number of years and "has a really strong infrastructure in place should there be a rush for private cloud".

Quite when that rush might materialise is a bit harder to pinpoint. "Although we are confident and are prepared for the potential rush," Kelly states, "it is always difficult to predict the exact timing of a sudden mass market move or indeed if it will be more gradual or steady."

Whatever happens, with flexible and reliable options available to partners from cloud service providers, "whatever their experience of cloud, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be ready for the gold rush, should it materialise".

Standing aside from the discussions of how channel partners should provide cloud infrastructure, O’Haire says their role as trusted advisor is likely to be the most important factor going forward. The portion of IT that remains on private infrastructure will still have to be managed in a more efficient way but will also have to be integrated "in a seamless and secure fashion with elements of the public cloud". This will encourage businesses to rely on trusted advisors in the channel that "understand and can help them integrate and secure all of the moving parts in this new hybrid world".

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