IT user supergroup forces vendors to take notice

Open Data Center Alliance focuses on interoperability

Tech vendors, be warned: The next-generation user group has arrived on the scene, and this time its members will force the world's biggest IT companies to listen closely.

Tech vendors, be warned: The next generation user group has arrived on the scene, and this time its members will force the world's biggest IT companies to listen closely.

The recently formed Open Data Center Alliance, representing more than $50 billion in IT spending, has loaded its steering committee up with big names like Lockheed Martin, BMW, China Life, Deutsche Bank, JPMorgan Chase, Marriott, the National Australia Bank, Shell and UBS. Terremark, although a vendor, is chairing the steering committee. But as a builder of cloud and hosting services, Terremark is keenly interested in making sure the likes of IBM, HP, Cisco and Microsoft take notice. Chipmaker Intel is also involved with the alliance as a technical advisor. 

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As the name suggests, the Open Data Center Alliance wants to ensure interoperability across core networking and cloud technologies, especially those provided by vendors that compete against each other. Technologies and concepts on the agenda include interoperable storage protocols, unified networking, policy-based power management, trusted computing pools and compliance with security requirements, dynamic workload placement, cloud "on-boarding" and provisioning, and flexible licensing models.

The alliance plans to deliver a more detailed roadmap and define an ideal, vendor-agnostic usage model in the first quarter of 2011.

Terremark's Marvin Wheeler points to the cell phone industry as a potential model of interoperability. Although smartphones themselves are often restricted to just one of the four major carriers, Wheeler points out "If you look at the cell phone industry there are certain standards of interoperability that all the manufacturers adhere to. I could be in Miami, Fla., using Verizon as my cell carrier with a Motorola phone and send you a video clip, and you're in New York City using AT&T and a Samsung phone, and the video clip will work just fine on your phone."

This type of interoperability hasn't prevented the cell phone industry from being highly innovative, as devices like iPhones and Androids prove, Wheeler notes.

But in the data center industry and emerging cloud-hosting services, ensuring that technologies from different vendors work together and allow portability of workloads and data across different platforms is easier said than done.

Vendors are always willing to use the latest buzzwords, even if their actions don't justify the advertising. Vendors are slapping the words "green" and "cloud" on just about any product and saying "we're cloud-friendly and we're green-friendly," says Andrew Feig, executive director of the UBS technology advisory group and a member of the Open Data Center Alliance steering committee.

But tying the whole technology stack together without forcing customers to buy from just one vendor is difficult at best today, he says.

One example is power management. Vendors have introduced different implementations for controlling and monitoring the power usage of data center equipment, when what customers really need are standards and common methods of managing energy use throughout the data center and entire building infrastructure, Feig says.

Management of servers is another area that lacks integration among vendors, Feig says. When a customer buys a new server "it's never plug-and-play," he says. "There is a fair amount of work. It's usually us changing the way we do things, and not the vendors."

UBS has a private cloud to deliver more flexible access to compute capacity internally, but doesn't limit itself to one or just a few vendors. "We have stuff from everybody," Feig says.

The trend of vendors providing integrated appliances with servers, storage, networking and virtualization capabilities included isn't necessarily a bad thing, even though it's a single-vendor approach, but is more expensive up front than building a technology stack piece by piece, Feig says. Another issue to be tackled by the Open Data Center Alliance is so-called "on-boarding" workloads and customers onto private and public cloud services and preventing lock-in to a specific service.

Feig expressed confidence that the problem of moving virtual machines from one hypervisor to another will get solved. But, he adds, virtualization is relatively mature compared to the other technologies and processes used by cloud services. For customers, it could end up costing a "fortune" to integrate with cloud providers like Amazon, Google and Microsoft and ensure that workloads can move from one cloud to another, he said.

Common types of security controls and billing infrastructures will also be needed to ensure cloud interoperability, says Curt Aubley of Lockheed Martin, which is the largest IT provider to the federal government, and therefore both a consumer and provider of technology. Aubley is president of the Open Data Center Alliance and a CTO at Lockheed.

Some of Lockheed's government customers have begun using public cloud services for application development and delivery, although Lockheed itself has built an internal cloud for its own users. To ensure interoperability, the vendors will have to agree on considerations that are both technical- and business-oriented, Aubley says.

In today's cloud market, Aubley says, "It's almost like the old days where if you wrote your application on a mainframe it didn't work on a Unix computer very well … and if you wrote an app on a Unix computer it wouldn't work on a Windows box."

Although technology user groups tend to be small and lack widespread visibility, Feig is confident the Open Data Center Alliance will defy that trend by bringing together giant users and focusing on broad industry trends rather than individual products.

"The big difference is this one is user driven," he says. "It's very focused on problems and the solutions to the problems, rather than products."

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