Federated clouds: for when one cloud isn’t good enough

1Executive Summary

There are times when putting a company’s computing workload on a single cloud just isn’t the best idea.

Take Zynga. When the über-popular game maker launched new games and was unable to gauge demand for them, it ran the bulk (80 percent) of new traffic at each launch on Amazon Web Services and the rest in-house. Last year, that ratio flipped so that 80 percent of launch traffic runs in Zynga’s cloud (Z cloud), not AWS. Zynga CTO Allan Leinwand recently told GigaOM that his company was able to optimize its go-to cloud by studying games-specific workloads.

“We built storage in a way that lets people go from one game board to another very fast,” he said. “We ended up using one server in Zynga where we used three in AWS.”

That ability to shift workloads from internal to external clouds or between external clouds is what is known as federation. Now a new flock of vendors is offering federation that would enable similar private-to-public cloud bursting between clouds to meet data privacy mandates, offer high availability to customers, and provide geographic reach. Those are areas that a federated cloud model can address, because it yokes resources from different providers together by overlaying them with a single software “fabric,” or the connective tissue that links the various clouds and makes sure they can interoperate.

In cloud computing, one size does not fit all, said Matt Richards, the VP of products for ownCloud, which specializes in open-source cloud-storage management. Companies have to pick the cloud or clouds that meet their different needs. “Some of your applications and data will be local, some in public clouds. That is the definition of a federated cloud which provides, in the end, the flexibility to get the job done,” Richards said.

In theory, these federated clouds offer the benefit of wide geographic coverage with more-granular control of where the data and applications actually sit. Because there is an array of providers available, workloads can be rolled over to another site in the event of a disruption to one part of the network. And, as the Zynga example illustrates, the very notion of a federation means that smaller, more-nimble cloud providers can compete with AWS for enterprise workloads.

The benefits of federated clouds

The fact remains that proximity matters in cloud computing. For companies with a global reach and data privacy mandates, it’s not enough to put workloads in some nebulous region, be it the European Union or the Eastern U.S. They need assurances that some data will be stored — and stay stored — in a specific country for specific reasons. For example, there is a growing movement afoot in Europe to make sure that data on local citizens stays in Europe-only clouds to prevent seizure by U.S. authorities citing the Patriot Act. Application workloads also need to be placed close to users, no matter where those users are, to mitigate network latency issues.

A federated model also has advantages for disaster recovery and failover, even for smaller companies, said Reuven Cohen, the founder of Enomaly, who is now Virtustream’s SVP of cloud community. “What if you develop an application for one particular data center or cloud and that cloud is no longer available? A federation lets you cheaply create continuity in case of an outage.”

Tier 3 targets service providers — hosting companies, telcos — as its primary audience, pitching the federated cloud services as something these service providers can resell, although there is no reason a large company could not also partake. With Virtustream’s acquisition of EnomalyTier 3‘s first federation partner CFN Services, and OnApp, companies are assembling such “fabric” that links data center resources in a way that can be very attractive to big companies, says Capgemini CTO Joe Coyle.

But there are many federated cloud options. CA AppLogic is also used to create federated clouds. And the open-source OpenStack cloud infrastructure initiative is also heading toward a federated model. In theory, as more OpenStack clouds get implemented — by Rackspace, Hewlett-Packard and others — there is an opportunity for federation between different OpenStack clouds down the road, says James Staten, VP and principal analyst with Forrester Research. In that scenario, if an HP OpenStack cloud has strengths in one area and a Citrix OpenStack cloud offers other specialized talents, a user could use both sets of capabilties.

Many clouds, one face

Such federations offer a broad scope of services from a single “virtual provider,” said cloud consultant Shlomo Swidler, the founder of Orchestratus, who also cites latency as a primary issue to be addressed. Classic content delivery networks (CDNs) aren’t much help, because many of these workloads are dynamic apps — not static data, Swidler said. A federation lets them put their apps in a location to optimize performance.

Some federations share a single underlying technology base (VMware in Tier 3’s case). Others, like Virtustream, promise to be platform-agnostic across the federation.

End-user enterprises can also pony up their own resources for use by other federation members, opening up a potential revenue stream. Virtustream, for example, is building a community cloud where different entities “can literally rent or loan excess capacity to other community members,” including to other enterprises, said Capgemini’s Coyle. “That is a very powerful model for any enterprise with excess capacity.”

As big and as fast-evolving as AWS is, some companies just need to be more hands-on with their clouds. Amazon doesn’t even like to disclose where its data centers are, let alone let people check them out. Terremark, on the other hand, “shows off our data centers every day,” said Ellen Rubin, the VP of cloud services for the company, which fields its own VMware-based federated cloud network.

The challenge for the multicloud federations coming out from Tier 3, Virtustream, OnApp and others is to preserve all of those feature-rich cloud resources — which can vary by provider — while offering a real, unified front end so that customers feel as if they are dealing with one, not many, entities.

The downside of federation

Because a federation by nature has more moving parts and comprises companies with differing agendas, complexity is a factor. “All the issues surrounding the choice of a single cloud service provider are compounded with a federation,” Swidler said.

Would-be customers — whether they are service providers or end-user companies — need to ensure that security, identity and service quality will be addressed consistently across all federation members, he said.

David Linthicum, the founder of Blue Mountain Labs, advises enterprises and service providers to ask lots of questions. “It’s tough to figure out what these federations are really — is there provisioning? Use-based accounting services?” he asked.

Some of what are being pitched as federated clouds appear to be “cloud-in-a-box” frameworks with basic services that service providers can use to get to the cloud fast, in Linthicum’s view. “Cloud in a box” refers to a preconfigured software, server and storage configuration– often available as an appliance — that is pitched as an easy way to get to the cloud (Oracle Exalogic is one example). But purists maintain these frameworks are not all that cloudlike, since they don’t scale beyond their current configuration.

Industry powers AWS, Rackspace, Microsoft and Google have so many resources at their disposal that it will be hard for even the largest confederation of smaller companies to keep up. Just in the past three months, AWS has rolled out a new storage gateway, new workflow services and NoSQL database services. When it is not trotting out new services, it is cutting prices on those services it already offers.

But the biggest question is whether federations that bind together diverse data centers and services around the world can really compete with those big players, all of which are building out data centers and cloud services at lightning speed. Linthicum said he wouldn’t bet on it, given the resources that those industry giants are bringing to bear on cloud computing infrastructure.

It is unclear to him and others whether these smaller players will be able to “stand up” as truly competitive cloud computing offerings at this stage of the game.

“Considering the traction that the larger cloud computing players have already experienced,” Linthicum said, “it will be hard for these smaller companies to compete.”

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