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Approaching the Intercloud

October 8, 2013  |  Written by Joe Weinman

Adoption of cloud computing by enterprises and consumers is growing rapidly, with most enterprises at this point either using it in production, trialing cloud services, or at least in a planning and evaluation phase.  Multiple vendors and providers are offering compelling offers enabling private, public, and hybrid clouds.  Consumers are also cloud adopters, whether they realize it or not.  Every web search, web mail, social network update, or app store download uses the cloud, one way or another.

A rich and teeming ecosystem of cloud products and services can offer substantial choice, but can also potentially lead to a Tower of Babel.  Standards such as the emerging IEEE P2302™ Intercloud standard can help.  The IEEE is responsible for hundreds of standards, including one most of us use every day, the IEEE 802.11 series of Wi-Fi standards.  This standard is under development as part of the IEEE Cloud Computing Initiative.

To better understand how these standards will support a computing utility, it is helpful to consider two other utilities: the electric utility and the telephone utility, which use two very different approaches to solve the issues associated with multiple providers.

In the case of the electric utility, there are various standards in use in various countries.  Consequently, a traveler wanting to make use of these utilities must carry around a set of adapters, using the correct adapter depending on location.  A plug designed for use in North America won’t work in Great Britain.  Moreover, the outlet provides services at different voltages and frequencies.  Consequently, appliances may not work or else will get fried, and motors won’t turn at the proper speed.  The electricity “networks” are different.

However, in the case of the telephone utility, users don’t need any adapters.  I can call you, you can call me, and we can each call anyone in the world with a landline or cellular phone.  For this system to work effectively, it was necessary to define interoperability standards and mechanisms, such as country codes, inter-provider signaling, and so forth.  Consequently, users need not worry about the internal mechanisms or specific hardware choices that each telco uses, they just dial a number.  This type of approach is also used in the Internet; all you need is a URL; the underlying network equipment provider or ISP doesn’t matter.

One approach under investigation by the industry is the “multi-cloud” approach, which in effect uses adapters to enable the use of multiple providers.  In contrast, the approach being defined by the IEEE, in conjunction with industry participants and academia, looks more like that used in telephony and the Internet.  Moreover, this is an open standard, which will provide a level playing field that should benefit all participants in the cloud industry.

The advantage of the first approach is that it doesn’t require much if any collaboration among industry participants.  The onus is shifted to the user to make things work.  The second approach makes it easier for customers, but does require participants to work together.  This is the objective of the IEEE Intercloud effort.  And, because interoperability can be tricky, with various protocols and mechanisms at various layers interacting in unforeseen ways, the IEEE today also launched an Intercloud Testbed effort to trial these emerging standards under real world conditions, and feed back issues to the P2302 initiative to evolve the standards.  Telx is one of the founding members of this effort, because interconnection-dense neutral colocation facilities are a natural home for interconnecting the bandwidth-intense traffic traveling between clouds.

As these initiatives come to fruition, someday, using the cloud will be almost as easy as picking up a phone and calling someone.