Hybrid clouds the way to go

In these tough economic times it has become rather common to hear upper management ask questions such as, "I've read about that cloud computing thing. Why aren't we using the cloud instead of buying so many servers?" But is the cloud ready? The answer, as any good engineer would tell you, is "it depends."

The cloud is already recognized as a great alternative for Internet sites, hosted e-mail, scalable storage and on-demand computing needs. Those who have embraced the cloud for these purposes say it offers exactly the kind of computing they need, when they need it and at a reasonable price with no commitments. Projects are implemented faster and IT is better prepared for unpredictable traffic patterns, spikes or last minute "emergencies." But while the benefits of cloud-based hosting are compelling, there is still resistance.

Resistance to the cloud comes primarily from two fronts: IT pros who are used to managing their own hardware, and business executives who fear the cloud as an unknown and insecure world where everybody's data is intertwined with no boundaries or safeguards.

Both feel safer knowing their servers are controlled and under their own supervision. But the price for that security is substantial and the security of the cloud is already very good and only getting better. As the economy continues to falter, tighter budgets and fewer resources will lead many IT and business professionals to their first experience with cloud computing and/or more traditional managed hosting.

Start with a hybrid

But assuming your organization has overcome the initial resistance to embracing cloud computing, the question remains: Is the cloud really ready for everything?

The answer is probably not, but it is ready for everyone. The cloud certainly is ready for some portion of your applications and IT infrastructure needs. One important thing to remember about cloud computing is that it doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. It can be a component of a larger IT infrastructure strategy that may include in-house data centers, co-location or managed hosting.

In fact, the hybrid combination of cloud plus traditional infrastructure is probably the best answer for most companies. A hybrid approach can provide you the costs savings, the scalable on-demand infrastructure and the security you need with very few tradeoffs.

Building a hybrid strategy requires some upfront planning. There are essentially three buckets of applications: those which could live completely within the cloud; those which require completely dedicated infrastructure; and those applications where a combination of the cloud and dedicated would be ideal.

Start by taking an inventory of your applications portfolio and try to sort them into these three categories. And remember — it's not all-or-nothing. A single application could potentially span both dedicated and cloud infrastructure.

The services that require a high degree of security or are very I/O or database intensive probably ought to stay on dedicated infrastructure. Applications that are public facing or scale up and down unpredictably are good candidates for the cloud. And then there's everything in between. If you need a little help, here are some applications that might fall into the various categories:

Applications that can be hosted in the cloud today:

* Your company's blog and support wiki.

* Your Exchange or IMAP e-mail.

* The landing page for marketing's latest mega-promotion.

* The brochure-ware Web sites for your companies hundreds of products and brands.

* The test/development servers that your developers seem to need more of every day.

* Data storage for e-mail archives, backups, log retention.

* A minimal remote disaster-recovery capability.

* New applications that are still in development or ready for pilot.

Applications that probably need dedicated infrastructure:

* The corporate ERP system.

* Enterprise data warehouse.

* Your credit card processing services.

* Storage for the designs of latest secret R&D project.

* Applications that require specialized hardware or operating systems not available in the cloud.

The hybrid category is the most difficult to generalize so we'll leave that up to you to figure. But note that this category probably offers the biggest payoff. There are dozens, possibly hundreds, of applications in every IT organization that will benefit from a cloud combined with traditional infrastructure.

How do you tap into the cloud to create these hybrid solutions? It can be difficult when the cloud is 2,000 miles away and you're trying to solve the physics problem better known as the speed of light. If your cloud is at a distance, then a hybrid strategy is probably limited to applications that can utilize the cloud for batch processing of some sort. You might also make use of cloud storage for applications that are not sensitive to latency or for which you can cache data locally.

But there are even better hybrid options on the horizon and even some available today. Providers that offer cloud services and complement it with traditional infrastructure in the same data center can open up a much larger set of options than cloud-only providers. Imagine having the cloud connected to your physical servers via gigabit Ethernet rather than over the Internet. This type of hybrid approach offers the most flexibility possible and is emerging as a promising way to take advantage of computing as a service without the tradeoffs.

Adversity spawns innovation and even a willingness to try new things. If you're making any changes in your infrastructure strategy, take a hard look at this type of hybrid cloud solution. It could save you a lot of capex dollars and let you continue to grow in this economy.

Most businesses are still much in favor of managing their data in a traditional manner. And no one is going to make a wholesale shift to cloud hosting overnight. But as the business climate changes, we can expect to see more business and IT professionals adapt, overcome and improvise with one foot in the cloud and the other on more solid and familiar ground.

Engates is CTO of Rackspace.

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