The [R]evolution Will Be Virtualized

Here’s a phrase you’ve undoubtedly heard far too often: “A major shift in Information Technology is coming.” Most of the time, it’s used merely to introduce some vendor’s new product or technology. It’s also been used to hail the coming of cloud computing and, more recently, private clouds. Cloud proponents—EMC included—love drawing analogies to previous technology waves that transformed business IT.

But let’s be clear about the driving force behind those waves. It was not technology. Each wave hit our shores when new ways were found to address a common and persistent problem: businesses’ need to develop and run applications more quickly and more flexibly than possible using then-conventional means.

That’s why cloud computing has become so compelling. Regardless of whose decoder ring you wear to decipher the hype, cloud computing essentially boils down to new ways to build, operate and consume IT that’s more flexible, dynamic, efficient, and available on demand.

Cloud discussions frequently evoke nostalgic images of the dramatic and sweeping changes that frequently accompanied those waves. And many claim that cloud computing’s benefits can only be attained through a similar IT revolution.

The Evolution of Revolution
It’s easy to understand why. Decades ago, huge technological shifts were often accomplished by revolution. Many organizations were both willing and able to jump quickly into new technologies and operational models because, in most cases, they were adding entirely new IT capabilities. They were not replacing systems crucial to their survival. Those few systems that did get supplanted could be either scrapped immediately, or shortly after their data had been converted and transferred to new systems. Disruptions to a company’s overall operation were easily contained—if they were noticed at all.

Today, however, IT’s typical role in a business is no longer at the periphery, but at its core. IT managers are expected—indeed, required—to be in control of their organization’s IT security and policy compliance, resource allocation, and service delivery management. Disruptive conversions and migrations that were once operational norms have become rare exceptions to be avoided.

For any major technology or operational shift in an Enterprise to succeed, then, it must preserve IT control and provide a smooth migration path. In other words, a successful transition in today’s world must be evolutionary, not revolutionary.

But some narrowly define cloud computing to mean the use of special APIs—unique to each vendor—in order to use external cloud resources. Moreover, they expect operational control over resources, service levels, and security to shift largely into the cloud service provider’s hands. For entirely new applications, that doesn’t sound too bad. But existing applications would need to be rewritten or abandoned in favor of those being offered.

It sure sounds like a revolution. And it reminds us of those thrilling days of yesteryear. But it’s anathema to today’s business IT.

Continuing Evolution
Does that make cloud computing a bad idea? No. But we need a way to gain the benefits of clouds—and still provide IT management the control and non-disruptive migration path it needs. Luckily enough, we can, by taking advantage of another trend that’s already well established in business IT: virtualization.

The raison d’être of virtualization is making IT resources—and the applications running on them—more flexible, dynamic, efficient, and available on demand. Sound familiar? It should. It’s the same thing we find attractive about clouds. If we standardize the virtual containers used within an organization—or better yet, across multiple organizations spanning industries and geographies—we can gain the kind of radical flexibility and efficiency in IT that standardized intermodal shipping containers brought to the transportation and shipping industry.

It also makes possible an open marketplace of compatible cloud service providers that can cater to an incredibly wide spectrum of needs. Workloads ranging from thirty-year-old COBOL apps to new Ruby-on-Rails web applications can all gain from being deployed and operated in a cloud infrastructure built such a way. And that means more choice—and control—in the hands of customers than is possible in a world where everyone is expected to adopt a single programming model, application set, or external provider.

Evolving EMC IT
As a vendor, we’ve been pretty jazzed for some time at EMC about how, in concert with an ecosystem of partners including VMware and Cisco, we can accelerate this evolution.

Not-so-coincidentally, EMC’s internal IT organization reached a similar conclusion. EMC IT was already well down a multi-year path toward a fully virtualized infrastructure, so IT leaders looked at cloud computing wondering whether it would turn out to be a disruptive threat, an opportunity, or merely another fad to be safely ignored. Looking at the various cloud discussions and offerings, they saw a couple of limited opportunities, and a lot of confusion. But when they discovered how they could build on virtualized infrastructure to create private clouds, the answer became clear: “opportunity.”

Like many customers we’ve talked to, EMC IT sees private clouds as a natural evolutionary step, taking virtual compute environments to a new level. And EMC IT has committed itself to taking that evolutionary step.

But most of the work ahead is not in technology and architecture. The real challenges lie in how we operate and consume IT services.

More on that as I continue chronicling our cloud journey.

About the Author: David Freund