Ask the IT Consultant

Jul 14 2012   2:30PM GMT

Do We Really Need Cloud Standards?

Beth Cohen Beth Cohen Profile: Beth Cohen

Question:  I am working on building a cloud strategy for my company.  How can we avoid vendor lock-in?

You would think that cloud technology would have standardized long time ago.  While network standards that shape the Internet have been widely accepted throughout the industry, cloud standards have had a much slower adoption path.  Sadly the current state of cloud standards is, after 15 years, still far less mature than it ought to be.  As cloud infrastructure technology matures, increased interest by the enterprise and emerging vendors is driving a renewed effort to create viable standards that will benefit everyone.

For companies looking for integration and the capability to build hybrid clouds, various standards and proprietary and open APIs have been proposed to provide interoperability up and down the three layers of the cloud stack.  The first and so far only, cloud-oriented standard that has been ratified is the Open Virtualization Format (OVF), which was approved in September 2010 after three years of processing by the DMTF.  OVF’s open packaging and distribution format offers some platform independence by allowing migration between some platforms, but it does not provide all the tools needed for full cloud interoperability.

I think we can all agree that everyone benefits from technology standards in the long-term – the operative word is long-term.  You would think that everyone would agree that cloud infrastructure technology standards should be given high priority, but creating compelling proprietary systems and discouraging standards gives early adopter companies competitive advantage in the short-term.  Think about Amazon and VMware’s vast technology and market leads in the cloud services and enterprise infrastructure systems respectively.  They have little motivation to support any standards that have the potential to undercut their monopoly market positions.

Users of cloud are asking when will cloud computing standards mature enough so that more companies will feel comfortable implementing cloud architectures and using cloud services without feeling locked in.  Ironically, while the commercial cloud offerings have been growing, built on the very standards that created the Internet itself, Amazon and others have been reluctant to publish their architectures.  Application Programming Interfaces (API), which hide the underlying architecture, are all well and good, but they do not guaranty true interoperability.  Downstream vendors quickly find that they need to build API interfaces for all the different services they need to support; adding significantly to the development and maintenance costs.  To address this and transparently transfer workloads among the different vendor based on predefined business rules, there needs to be much more comprehensive standards.

One obvious question to ask is if there is an opportunity for the commercial cloud systems to become standards.  After all, there have been precedents where formerly proprietary formats, such as VMDK (Virtual Machine Disk) which was developed by VMware, have become de facto standards simply by being widely adopted by the industry.  One could even argue that platforms such as Amazon’s AWS are already standards.  However, as many companies have found to their chagrin, while it has a vast variety of services, easy to use tools, and a significant technological head start on the competition, it is more of a cloud world roach motel.  Lots of companies have found it easy to get applications running quickly, but changing providers or taking the applications back in-house as requirements change is fraught with unexpected perils.  Amazon’s backing of Eucalyptus does not address that problem directly, but it does offer a viable option for companies that want to build what Amazon euphemistically calls, on-premise services.

In conclusion, the good news is that the cloud industry is finally reaching consensus that the time to build cloud interoperability standards is long overdue.   The biggest need remains for interoperability standards to allow virtual machines to be migrated between clouds transparently and for more robust hybrid cloud solutions.  For the moment companies that want to use multiple platforms or a mix of public and private options are stuck with complex architectures and emerging orchestration tools such as enStratus and Rightscale to bridge the gap.

About the Author

Beth Cohen, Cloud Technology Partners, Inc.  Transforming Businesses with Cloud Solutions

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