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Development of cloud connectivity standards hinges on Ethernet

Cloud providers are the biggest consumers of Ethernet ports, but none are big enough to dictate their own cloud connectivity standards for global use.

Cloud providers are the biggest consumers of Ethernet ports worldwide, expanding their cloud services footprint with every port shipment. Recent reports estimate that 70% of all Ethernet port shipments will go to cloud providers within the next three years.

In 2012, just three providers -- Amazon Web Services, Google and Microsoft -- accounted for 40% of all the Ethernet ports shipped worldwide. While this suggests the market is on target to hit its projections, the fact that these providers still account for less than half of the ports shipped also tells us that not one of these giants is big enough yet to dominate the scene and dictate its own cloud connectivity standards for global usage.

To meet the needs of virtual machine (VM) mobility, security requirements and compliance demands, cloud providers with large service footprints will have to partly or completely run Carrier Ethernet on the WAN and completely over Ethernet in the data center.

But there are five aspects of service delivery -- virtualization, automation, security, programmability and analytics -- that need standardization. Since standards bodies have only provided piecemeal approaches to solving these challenges, each provider is developing its own internal solutions to overcome them. Consequently, however, they have struggled to achieve interoperability with the external organizations they need to work with.

A unified transport over Ethernet with an open interface model built around these five areas benefits all players in the cloud ecosystem. The CloudEthernet Forum is working to provide broad, standardized specifications for these service delivery elements that can be adopted and used as interfaces by all participants in the market, enabling far faster, more feature-rich, secure, compliant and cost-effective interoperability of their services.

Collaboration key to cloud connectivity standards process

History shows that platform wars often result in a winner-takes-all scenario. When cost and choice become the primary decision criteria for most users, two different platforms can rarely co-exist -- and if they can, certainly not on an equal footing. Winners can grab up to 70% to 80% of the market share, leaving crumbs for one-time market leaders.

The alternative would be to find a better balance between competition and co-operation. The outstanding success of Carrier Ethernet happened because vendors -- rather than battle each other to see whose technology could take the lead -- collaborated to create and certify global standards in the name of Metro Ethernet Forum (MEF). It was still a winner-takes-all situation, but here the winner was everyone: the users who could buy certified services and equipment without having to waste time choosing technologies, the service providers and vendors that made faster sales, and the global economy that was accelerated by high-performance, lower-cost WAN services brought about by Carrier Ethernet.

A key factor in MEF's success was including service providers in this collaboration, rather than having it remain a consortium of box sellers. In the case of cloud connectivity standards, there are even more stakeholders to be considered: equipment vendors, service providers and carriers, as well as the giant data center operators like Amazon, Microsoft and Google that currently dominate the cloud. The discussion must also include the growing number of over-the-top (OTT) companies -- such as Netflix, Skype and WhatsApp -- that rent inexpensive, flexible and fungible infrastructure from the operators and do business without the capital expense burden that a carrier takes on.

The MEF did more than just consider what the industry might be able to do with Ethernet; it went on to ask, "What characteristics should Ethernet have if it is to migrate to the WAN and become the world's transport of choice?" The way forward for the cloud should be similar. Cloud services need robust and secure connectivity, but can that be deployed according to the on-demand cloud model? Carrier Ethernet is fast, but the cloud's VM population runs into millions so that even small delays could add up to significant losses.

Consistent, global standards help build market confidence and reduce the delays that go with making business choices around cloud migration. Remember, for all the hype and apparent success of cloud computing, there is still an overwhelming majority of businesses that does not yet trust the cloud.

Meanwhile, if the large OTT providers don't join in this co-operative endeavor, they could find themselves stuck on a proprietary island -- albeit a very big one -- while the rest of the market moves to shared standards. Just as Facebook's contribution to the Open Compute project has moved the data center infrastructure market as a whole forward, the development of global cloud connectivity standards will create an unlimited business opportunity for everyone.

About the author:
Jeff Schmitz is chairman of the CloudEthernet Forum, a global industry alliance of cloud providers, carriers, network equipment vendors and systems integrators working to enhance Ethernet technologies to support cloud services. Founded in May 2013, it is affiliated with the Metro Ethernet Forum.

This was last published in January 2014

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