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Cloud computing and the big rethink: Part 4

The community that may be most attracted to the cloud-computing model in the long term are those who have the least direct interaction with the underlying technologies that enable it--application end users.

So far in this series, I've described why the very form of application infrastructure delivery will change in the coming years, and why both infrastructure and software development will play a major role in that. These are powerful forces that are already at work, and you are already seeing their effects on the way enterprise IT and consumer Web applications are being operated.

There is one more key force that will change the way we acquire, build, and consume enterprise application functionality and data, however. It is the very reason that enterprise IT exists. I am speaking, of course, of the users--the business units and individuals that demand IT give them increased productivity and competitive advantage.

How is it that end users could affect cloud-based architectures? After all, isn't one of the key points about cloud computing that it hides infrastructure and operations from hosted applications and services? The answer is simple: the need for cloud-operated infrastructure comes from the need for more efficient application delivery and operations, which in turn comes from the accelerated need for new software functionality driven by end users.

The most obvious place where this is the case is software as a service. Cloud applications and services that fall under this category are targeted at end users; they deliver computing and storage functionality that meet specific business needs (such as customer relationship management (CRM) or application development and testing).

Here's the thing about most business applications, though, regardless of how they are delivered: they are almost never used out of the box, as is, without some form of customization. I worked for a short time at enterprise content management vendor, Alfresco, and I don't think there were any "as is" deployments. Every engagement involved customization.

For CRM vendor, the evidence is the importance and success of its cloud development platform, as well as its AppExchange marketplace. Both allow users to customize or extend for their needs, and even build new business applications that leverage customer data.

The result of this is that the cloud itself must be not only elastic, but agile. It must bend at all levels to the will of its users, and the degree and ease of configuring and customizing will quickly become competitive differentiators for vendors in all categories of cloud computing.

What are the best ways to accommodate this agility at scales large enough to meet the needs of cloud computing? Well, today that would be two technologies:

  • Virtualization--the abstraction of computing, storage, and networking resources from underlying infrastructure
  • Automation--the elimination of the need for human intervention in common, repeatable tasks and decisions

Now, if you are going to virtualize and automate infrastructure in support of a customization of a SaaS application, do you need an entire virtual server with a full featured operating system? Of course not. In fact, I would argue that you need least-common-denominator systems infrastructure to enable the customization to work. Otherwise you are creating unnecessary storage and computing baggage.

I think in many ways only the cloud-computing model enables this degree of efficiency in running customized business systems for end users. Because the service vendors (be it software, platform, or infrastructure services) are able to optimize for all customers at once, a given advancement in efficiency pays off much more (and much faster) for the service provider than it would for a single customer. Multi-tenancy is what makes the economics work for both the business user and the service provider.

My next and final post in the series will attempt to wrap all of this up, and to present a vision of what the cloud of the future may look like when the evolution and/or demise of the operating system and virtual server is complete. Though I harbor no illusions about it happening all at once, or being a pain-free transition, I, for one, am excited about the new technologies this future may enable. I hope you are, too.