It seems that just about every company, large or small, is either using a cloud-computing service or thinking about signing up for one. From startups such as Dropbox and Pinterest to conglomerates like Samsung and Royal Dutch Shell and computing service heavyweights such as Amazon Web Services, Google, IBM, and Microsoft, these companies are delivering their content and services from the cloud, enabling their customers, employees, and partners to access information from just about anywhere. Hundreds of companies are offering cloud products and services, as well as chips, networking gear, servers, storage, power distribution equipment, facilities, and consulting and integration services.
Gartner Inc., an information technology research and advisory company, predicts that by 2016 the bulk of new IT spending will be for cloud-computing platforms and applications, with nearly half of all large organizations relying on cloud deployments by the end of 2017. That’s no surprise since businesses need only pay for the services they use, much as they pay for electricity or phone service. Some cloud providers charge as little as US $5 a month for their applications. Another upside is that organizations no longer have to house their own file and e-mail servers.
But almost by definition, the existence of multiple cloud-service providers creates its own problems. Choices increase, but so do complexity and incompatibility. Applications, formats, application programming interfaces, or services may not be compatible. Users can’t always move their computing and storage needs easily from one service provider to another. To accomplish this, interoperability and federation are needed, which allow users to move their applications and data across internal and external clouds and access services running on still other clouds. Here, multiple clouds would behave as one, just as multiple networks behave as one Internet. Such capabilities are called the “Intercloud”: a mesh of clouds that exploit open standards for their interconnection. But these standards are still emerging.
To enable cloud services to become as mainstream as the Internet, in October IEEE launched an Intercloud Testbed project, to develop and refine cloud-to-cloud interoperability and federation. It was set up by the IEEE Cloud Computing Initiative and is an activity of the IEEE Standards Association Industry Connections program.
IEEE partnered with 21 cloud and network service providers, cloud-enabling companies, and academic and industry research institutions from around the world to create a global lab, or testbed, that will prove and improve the Intercloud. They include the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing, the Global Inter-Cloud Technology Forum, the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Juniper Networks, the University of Ulster, and Virtustream.
These organizations have volunteered their own cloud implementations and expertise for a shared testbed environment. They will also collaborate to produce a working, open-source prototype of a global Intercloud.
“There is no major cloud provider or commercial enterprise that I’m aware of that is primarily focused on interoperability,” says Joe Weinman, chair of the IEEE Intercloud Testbed Executive Committee. He’s also senior vice president at Telx, in New York City, one of the initiative’s founding members.
“This initiative is intended to complement and benefit cloud providers, third-party entities such as cloud exchanges, and customers of cloud services the same way that the Internet has accelerated the growth of network services and provided numerous benefits to customers,” he continues. “It will also accelerate cloud adoption, since one barrier hindering some customers from embracing the cloud is the fear of being locked in to one provider.”
Results from the project will also help with the development of the forthcoming IEEE P2302 Standard for Intercloud Interoperability and Federation, which is specifying standard methods for cloud-to-cloud interworking. The standard will define the topology, protocols, functionality, and governance required.
“Since IEEE is developing the standard, it is only logical for it also to manage the testbed initiative to validate that the standard actually does what it is supposed to do and feed back any insights from use into the standards development effort,” Weinman says.
The technical architecture for cloud interoperability used by IEEE P2302 and the Intercloud is a next-generation network-to-network interface federation architecture. This is analogous to the federation approach used in both the international direct-dial telephone system and the Internet. The federated architecture will make it possible for Intercloud-enhanced clouds operated by different service providers to seamlessly interconnect and interoperate, identify the cloud providers, and support payment processing.
“Similar to the way the Internet transfers data packets between service providers, the Intercloud will reliably transfer applications and data between providers,” Weinman says. “It’s the next logical wave in computing, enabling hybrid applications and cost and performance optimization, while enhancing reliability and customer flexibility, as well.”
FULL STEAM AHEAD
The partners have already begun the technical and engineering work, leveraging existing standards and technologies where possible, according to Weinman. The design and architecture of Intercloud messaging protocols are under way. Other work includes creating authentication and identification mechanisms, establishing naming conventions (similar to IP addresses and domain names), and developing payment-processing procedures and other formats and protocols. One particular goal is to get connectivity in place between testbeds on the U.S. East and West coasts. Telx has volunteered its state-of-the-art cloud data center resources in Clifton, N.J., and Santa Clara, Calif.
Weinman welcomes others from anywhere in the world to join the project, be they large or small companies or individuals, IEEE members or not, as long as they are willing to contribute physical resources, software, insight, or their time. "Whatever it takes to help move things forward,” he says. “This is an effort being enabled through the voluntary contributions of people and organizations around the world, coordinated under the IEEE imprimatur. Emerging standards need to be tested in the real world on real physical networks, servers, storage, and software. And interoperability standards require even more testing, as various combinations of components are evaluated for things like functionality, reliability, and performance.”
Visit the Intercloud Testbed project’s website to learn how to become a member.