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Got experience running a WAN? Cloud computing may not be so scary

Editor's note: The divide between cloud computing and managing a wide area network (WAN) may not be as big as you may think.

In the second half of this Q&A, Mark Day, chief scientist in the office of the CTO at Riverbed Technology, spoke with about how WAN administrators may be better prepared for the WAN-cloud dynamic than their local area network (LAN) counterparts are.

Mark Day

Why should WAN managers and administrators be paying attention to the cloud?

Mark Day: I think it's reasonable to expect that people are effectively going to be adding one or more equivalents of data centers to their environments, so people who may think of themselves as running a single data center will be finding they are effectively dealing with … more. Certainly, if people make the big leap and move everything in their enterprise into the cloud, they'll be in an interesting place.

But I think most people will be in a transitional state for some time. Even people who don't think they have a WAN set of issues or performance issues related to the WAN, such as in a single-location type of organization, will find they are now concerned about the WAN and multiple data centers. 

Specific to operating a WAN, cloud computing presents what kinds of benefits and challenges?

As a WAN-focused person, there's not a lot that comes up in cloud space that isn't already familiar.

Mark Day Chief ScientistRiverbed Technology

Day: From a WAN perspective, the advantage of the cloud—at some level—is that the technology or the issue is familiar. As a WAN-focused person, there's not a lot that comes up in cloud space that isn't already familiar . The tricky part is on the other side. For people who are used to having everything local and don't realize there's a WAN involved, the key about the cloud is really that it's effectively taking data centers and sticking them at the end of WANs. 

Are WAN engineers better prepared for the cloud than someone who has run only a LAN?

Day: They'll be better equipped at one level. Someone who's never dealt with a WAN before is going to be surprised by some aspects as compared with a LAN, in terms of availability and the bandwidth…. On the other hand, it has to be said that running a WAN that your organization owns and controls is a very different experience from having some access over the public cloud.

There's going to be, again, this transition where the difference between an enterprise WAN and private cloud is fairly small, and people are already on that blurry line…. I think a lot of people will wake up one morning and discover they used to think of themselves as enterprise WAN managers and now [see themselves as] private cloud managers, and very little of what they do will change. To be fair, I wouldn't call it a simple relabeling, but the distance between them is not as great as people think. Access control and security are obviously in the hands of your provider, but if something fails, the axe comes down on you. If you operate a WAN, cloud computing feels like a big loss of control.

How can you protect yourself?

Day: This is one reason why I'd expect that the most common uses of cloud in the near term are likely to be focused on backup and other issues, where you can probably protect yourself from a cloud provider's failure by a straightforward mirroring strategy…. I think that the broader answer to that is partly technical and partly [rooted in] the development of trust that people will get better at developing standards [and] having mechanisms that let them put trusted data into untrustworthy environments.

[Users] simply will become more familiar with cloud providers—their strengths and weaknesses. Part of it is coming down from the hype. One of the things you learn when you deploy cloud service is that there are seams … your provider calls you up and says, "We need to take the service down for a little while so we can migrate you here." Those kinds of realities will just become part of the landscape everyone understands. At the moment, because people don't understand which promises are real and which are not so real, they have some trouble trusting the cloud. 

Is there anything on the WAN that's too sensitive to put in the cloud?

Day: I think there are many kinds of data where there are legal obligations to prevent disclosure. If someone were to come to me and say, "I have these medical records" or "I have this employee data" or "I have this national security intelligence, and I'm going to put it up into a cloud provider without any encryption or any other kind of protection," I think that would be a straightforward case where you would say, "That's foolish." There definitely is data that you shouldn't put into the cloud. But that said, I don't think there's any reason you can't take that data and encrypt it yourself and store it in a cloud.

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