When will cloud computing become a true utility?
Tue 23 Feb 2021 | Terry Storrar
Until cloud computing becomes a true utility, organisations must think carefully about how they purchase cloud services
The idea of treating the cloud as a utility has been a recurring topic of conversation in and around the industry for a number of years. In theory, a greater level of standardisation across the industry would mean that, just like other utilities such as mobile, internet and electricity providers, organisations could easily switch cloud providers in the search for better service or pricing. In doing so, and in common with existing utilities, the product remains of comparable value or doesn’t change at all.
But switching easily between cloud providers is unfortunately still a thing of the future. Cloud orchestration tools theoretically have the potential to make that happen: they offer a single pane of glass to easily measure cloud performance, compare prices and move workloads based on the requirements of the workloads. In practice, however, this remains a challenging process.
Although major cloud providers basically deliver the same product, they still differ in key details. For instance, each delivers a different interface and method of communicating with the product. The biggest migration problem, however, is caused by the variety of APIs from one provider to another, so the migration process has built-in complexity, making it more difficult to achieve a ‘utility-like’ status.
In contrast, changing electricity supplier is mainly an administrative act. Yes, you have to fill in a number of forms (or even sign up for services that do it for you), but you will not notice the actual switch taking place, and you will never be without power. Today, the process is designed to be seamless and for many people, has become an essential method of finding the best deals as rival providers compete heavily for those customers who are prepared to switch.
In the cloud context, orchestration could make switching cloud providers just as easy as switching power suppliers or telecom providers. The cloud orchestration (CO) platform is an abstraction layer and essentially acts as an interpreter between the infrastructure and the respective cloud. The infrastructure “talks” to the abstraction layer and the tool ensures that the communication is translated into the language that the cloud provider ‘speaks’.
One of the problems is that in practice, cloud providers, and hyperscalers in particular, move quickly. Some launch dozens of new services every year, and despite the availability of third-party CO platforms and organisations who have the resources to develop solutions in-house, management and maintenance are made much more challenging because of the sheer pace of change dictated by the providers.
Another sign that companies are experiencing migration issues is the fact that hyperscalers are also offering virtualisation platforms within their cloud.
However, most organisations only need to run specific applications in the cloud, not the entire virtualisation platform. Although this approach simplifies the migration, it doesn’t help realise the benefits that a public cloud can offer and leads to deeper vendor lock-in. On the plus side, this approach does offer the advantage of working within an ecosystem that has actually been developed for AWS “native” virtualisation, for instance.
This means that for many organisations, migrations – from on-premises to cloud and vice-versa, or from cloud to cloud – remain an extremely challenging process.
To make progress, they need to aim for a greater degree of IT orchestration, which in turn, can deliver smoother migration processes. In addition to CO platforms, there are also other options to increase the mobility of workloads between clouds.
Containers can play a role, for example, because all the dependencies of the software (the code, the supporting tools and the runtime) reside in the container. As a result, differences at an infrastructure level can no longer cause problems. And because containers are independent, the platform they are running on becomes less important.
Gaia-x – the European cloud
Despite these various challenges and potential barriers to seamless cloud migration, there are ongoing, coordinated attempts to deliver common infrastructure.
Gaia-X is a good example of the quest to build uniformity between cloud providers. A partnership of European industry parties, it aims to provide a counterbalance to the American cloud solutions providers through an open, federated cloud setup to deliver data mobility in a secure manner. By realising not only uniform APIs, but also unambiguous service descriptions and functionality, its success would definitely contribute to making infrastructure actually mobile.
As it stands today, the cloud is not yet “fluid”. Gaia-X offers hope for the future, but is still generally viewed as a “work in progress”. Until its ambitions are realised, organisations must think carefully about how they purchase cloud services and how they set up their infrastructure accordingly to prevent vendor lock-in and high costs.