What Does The Cloud Really Look Like?

As it turns out, "the cloud" is a bunch of smaller clouds. And rival cloud computing vendors share some of the same infrastructure. Here's a peek inside.

The reality of cloud computing has always been a lot more about the nuts and bolts of data-center operations than about the metaphor of on-demand computer power flowing from anonymous sources somewhere on the other end of the network connection.

Cloud Computing Definitions and Solutions

Still, it's a bit too meta when you realize that cloud-computing platforms are often made up of other clouds.

OS-independent virtual application-appliance vendor AppZero, for example, built its service on the existing IaaS (Internet as a service) offering from GoGrid, which itself is an owned spinoff of traditional data-center hosting provider ServerPath.

The Source for the Force

SaaS groundbreaker Salesforce.com runs entirely from data centers owned by Equinix, one of the world's largest co-location and data-center hosting providers—whose 2800 customers include hundreds offering cloud-based infrastructure, application or content services using Equinx' 50 data centers as a base.

Equinix co-location competitor Rackspace bought virtual-private-server provider Slicehost, online storage provider JungleDisk and e-mail service Webmail.us to help it compete—primarily in the consumer and SMB market—against infrastructure-as-a-service providers such as Amazon.

Oddly, both Rackspace and Amazon's S3 service rely on Equinix data centers, though to differing degrees. Amazon's cloud billows entirely from Equinix facilities, while Rackspace rents space, bandwidth or compute power only in locations it has no facilities of its own. Much of the rest of the Internet's data- and content-backbone runs from Equinix, however, including services from Citrix Online, AT&T Verizon, MSN, Level3 Networks, About.com, Akamai, America Online, Electronic Arts, Yahoo and Paypal.

Companies such as Terremark — which offers one cloud service for small groups and another for enterprises — are more impressive in many ways than Equinix, which only provides the platform, Mark Kelleher, managing director of financial analysis firm Brigantine Advisors told the Wall Street Transcript.

Equinix has turned itself into an enabler of both cloud providers and carriers, building itself a vendor-neutral business in the process, however, Kelleher says.

As a pure infrastructure specialist, however, Equinix can focus on its own technology and add value by putting together customers who can offer one another the kind of specialty services they'd otherwise have to build themselves, according to Vince DiMemmo, general manager of cloud and IT services at Equinix.

"Services that are running in the cloud need some pretty intense network connectivity on the backbone, broad network services for service delivery and cost management, high physical security and availability — five nines or higher," DiMemmo says.

A New Kind of IT Service Provider

"A SaaS company can come in to one of our data centers and employ a co-location model and provide all their own services on top of that, but they could also connect to other cloud providers for that," DiMemmo says. "Because we focus so much on network service providers, what you see in the data centers is an ecosystem they can plug in to for hardware and software and networking that is optimized for fast throughput without having to build it themselves."

The cloud phenomenon is changing the way IT service providers of all kinds define themselves, moving them away from their traditional role as integrators of technology, and into the position of developing the technology they sell, according to Gartner analyst Lydia Leong.

With a long list of expansions, acquisitions and new services designed to give telecommunication companies a low-latency, high-bandwidth way to pass IP traffic among their networks, Equinix is going the other way — sticking with the infrastructure rather than ways to distribute content or other services on top of it, she wrote.

There's not much mystery to data center management, but it's an unrelenting and unforgiving business, according to Bob Laliberte, analyst at the Enterprise Strategy Group.

That's why VMware, BMC, IBM, Cisco and other major players in the virtualization market began making agreements early last year — when VMware's push for internal clouds rather than simply virtual server networks was in its early stages, Laliberte says.

Ever since offshoring got hot in the '90s, large companies have been moving toward a model of IT in which the IT services appear to come from a single IT department but are actually an integrated mix of cloud, virtualization and networking services, often provided by external companies, according to Chris Wolf, analyst at The Burton Group.

The best thing about cloud computing isn't that you can add or subtract compute resources according to demand from your own users, according to Steve Peltzman, CIO of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The best thing is that clouds make it much easier to plug in new services without months of development and testing, making it possible for even small IT shops to offer sophisticated applications and services, he says.

Who knew the cloud providers would build their services the same way?

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