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A Cloud Computing ‘Nutrition Label’

‘Cloud Facts’ label will bring much needed standards to accelerate cloud growth

Like most maturing industries, standards are required to achieve broad adoption and maximum value. For the cloud, in particular cloud Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) offerings like Amazon Web Services and Rackspace Cloud, it's time for a standard method for presenting these services so buyers can reasonably compare and contrast and make better buying decisions.

At the moment, purchasing IaaS is similar to how groceries were bought decades ago - very difficult to compare - both the product contents and the price/value vary from one vendor to another. A recent study conducted by the Open Data Center Alliance (ODCA) - involving Intel, Appnomic Systems and a number of other ODCA enterprise members - illustrates just how difficult the situation is today.

Other industries have gone through this evolutionary phase of defining standards and the cloud computing industry will do the same. New cars started being sold with a Monroney sticker in the windows revealing EPA gas mileage data. Mortgages come with HUD-1 disclosure documentation to ensure all mortgages are comparable from one to the other. Credit card promotions have a standard presentation for disclosing interest rates, annual fees, and other key terms.

The key questions are when it will happen and how this standardization will occur - through self-regulation or government intervention.

The time has come for the cloud computing industry to step up. It IS going to happen. The Federal government has already begun to engage on rating and comparing broadband providers.[1] Cloud providers could very well be next - and that may not be a good thing. The industry has an opportunity to pick up the ball and address the situation proactively.

What's the Cloud Equivalent of Calories, Carbs, and Flavors?
One of the biggest obstacles to creating a "nutrition label" type of standard for cloud computing is that IT IS HARD to compare one cloud to another cloud. There are so many variables, for example, the testing and verification process is still in the very early stages. PriceWaterhouseCoopers has written a paper on the value of third-party validation and how it can help protect a brand in the cloud, yet this process can be an expensive and time-consuming process.

A glance at the overwhelming amount of information involved in providing cloud services can be, well, overwhelming and create its own challenge of comparing offerings. You can see what I mean at the Amazon Web Services and Rackspace pricing pages (available at these hyperlinks to web pages at these companies' websites respectively at the time of publication: AWS, RAX).

One recent attempt at defining the elements to be included in a "Cloud Facts Label" has been the efforts of the Open Data Center Alliance (ODCA) with draft a "usage model" for Standard Units of Measure (SUoM). The organization also chartered a proof of concept (POC) to illustrate how SUoM can be applied in real life (click here to download the report in PDF format).

However, the food industry probably had similar concerns. Like the illustrative food Nutrition Facts label below, you can imagine a Cloud Facts label highlighting the top 20 or so characteristics of an IaaS offering in a standardized way for consumers to compare and contrast.

Why It's Hard to Do and Is Going to Require Industry Collaboration
Among the first things the ODCA learned in the POC was that it is really difficult to be the first to try to establish standard units of measure (SUoM) for the cloud. To quote the report:

"Achieving equivalent environments across different cloud services proved more difficult and time-consuming than the PoC team anticipated. ... We did not find an easy method to incrementally adjust memory, processor, or network options to tune the CIaaS platform resources and achieve desired application performance."

When comparing fairly standard competitors such as Rackspace and Amazon, there were still differences in memory, virtual CPUs and how they were packaged.

IaaS buyers should have a set of agreed-upon standard units of measure upon purchase and ways to verify those metrics after purchase, so they can assess whether they are, in fact, continuing to receive what they've paid for. A standardize measurement and disclosure would take care of the purchase decisions and companies like Appnomic provide systems to help address ongoing performance measurement and management.

How Do We Make the Cloud Facts Label Happen?
It is becoming increasingly clear that the industry as a whole needs to take action. In this regard, it may be instructive to examine how other industries dealt with the issue of setting standards.

In the auto industry, safety and disclosure issues came to a head in 1958 when the Automobile Information Disclosure Act of 1958 was passed by the US congress. Ultimately, disclosure labels were required on all automobiles sold in the United States.

Since that time, the top twelve auto manufacturers came together to form the Auto Alliance, because they realized that the alternative was more government intervention, and that "constantly shifting government rules create manufacturing chaos, ultimately raising costs to consumers."

In 2006, to fight security breaches in the credit card industry, the top credit card issuing companies formed the Payment Card Industry Security Standards Council and established the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS). While still a work in process given all the recent breaches, at least that industry has taken action to get in front of the issues and to establish security and prevention standards to help prevent fraud.

Most of us are familiar with websites that make it easy to compare personal computers by listing in table format the CPU size, monitor screen size, RAM, storage, etc., included in a computer.

The cloud industry could refer to any of these models to choose how to proceed. By not choosing, it's certainly reasonable that government intervention may be the outcome. While the risk is not the health of our citizens as with the food industry, there are various obvious concerns with the current situation should it continue or get exacerbated.

What's in It for You, for All of Us . . .
The service providers argue that they should continue selling their customers a "black box" version of cloud infrastructure and not worry about what's inside. They say that is the value of cloud computing in the first place. Users should not worry about what's inside and leave that to the experts.

The problem with this view is that it only really addresses a "sunny day scenario" when cloud operations work. What happens when things go wrong? How does the IaaS user hold the service provider accountable? How does the service provider protect their own interests? What happens when that first service provider starts over provisioning, under delivering, crashes customers' applications, goes out of business and leaves customers hanging?

Aside from these dire possible outcomes, it's just good business to know what you are buying and to be able to compare. This characteristic of US industries is part of what makes our global competitiveness and intense drive for excellence result in a strong economy.

Needless to say, as a long-term strategy for credibility, deeper market penetration, and industry sustainability, the current situation is not a viable option.

The end benefits of developing SUoMs for cloud infrastructure are many:

  • The increased transparency will empower customers to better understand and trust what they are purchasing.
  • The research phase of the sales cycle will be shortened as customers will have easier-to-understand benchmarks to help guide them.
  • Application performance on IaaS platforms will perform better and will get to better performance faster as illustrated by the ODCA POC results.
  • The SUoMs will provide a clear upgrade path, leading to more well-defined tiers of service and more sales, faster than is possible now.

By implementing a Cloud Facts label, the industry will grow the overall industry pie and while pie may not be the most nutritious food, it sure is a great dessert!

Reference

  1. The FCC (Federal Communications Commission) has already implemented a broadband speed test and report as well as a national broadband map that inventories what speeds are available in what geographies.

More Stories By Ray Solnik

Ray Solnik is President of Appnomic Systems. As president of Appnomic Systems, he has P & L responsibility with a focus on business growth in North America. He brings to Appnomic twenty years of experience in cloud computing, managed network services, and data communications.

Prior to Appnomic, Ray was president and COO of OpSource, an early SaaS/IaaS provider, which was acquired and is now the core Cloud offering of Dimension Data - a $4 billion systems integrator. Ray has helped multiple next generation companies develop and drive strategies resulting in successful fundraising from top venture capital investors, including Gengo, PowerCloud Systems, and CrowdFlower.

Earlier in his career, Ray was chief development officer of New Edge Networks (acquired by EarthLink), and president of AT&T’s consumer Internet services business, AT&T WorldNet. He has a bachelor's degree in economics from the University of Michigan and an MBA from Stanford Graduate School of Business. He lives in Silicon Valley.

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