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Building a cloud computing infrastructure to serve dual purposes

While updating network infrastructure, operators must design a cloud computing infrastructure that serves a two-fold purpose -- supporting multiple cloud computing services and serving as the IT platform for the operator’s own applications.

We’ve been bombarded with cloud computing services terms that describe many types of services that can be offered through the cloud. For network operators, the challenge with multifaceted clouds is that they have a variety of business drivers. The catch is that if different drivers push cloud computing infrastructure in incompatible directions, the consequences could be dire for service providers’ capital and operations expenses, as well as for return on investment (ROI).

Hosted services and features also make the architecture that binds these IT elements into a critically important set of cohesive resources.

Tom Nolle, President, CIMI Corp.

Unlike enterprise clouds, this diversity of business drivers requires service provider clouds to function as platforms for traditional OSS/BSS and internal IT, as platforms to host features and content and as platforms for cloud services for different groups of customers -- enterprises, SMBs and consumers. Virtually every operator would have a different balance of need/opportunity in each of these areas.

In addition to offering cloud services including Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), Platform as a Service (PaaS), Software as a Service (SaaS), Database as a Service and Hosting as a Service, internally, network operators are also giant IT consumers themselves. That means they build data centers not only for OSS/BSS and traditional applications, but for hosting content and features.

Network operators have most of the same concerns as enterprises about cloud computing infrastructure efficiency, application performance and even “cloudsourcing” to third parties, which means that operators are shifting their IT investment from an internal fulfillment strategy to one hosted in the cloud. For this supply-side vision of cloud migration, the best course is often dictated by the cloud strategies supported by the major IT vendors, just as it is for enterprises.

Yet the issue of business and network transformation represents a special challenge for service providers -- restructuring their network infrastructure to meet changing revenue goals and new service targets. Five years from now, most operators will be earning the majority of their revenues from sources that were minimal or non-existent contributors five years before.

Cloud computing infrastructure’s dual role -- internal IT and customer services

The service-driven transformation of network operators is more than a network infrastructure transformation. Content and social network services, mobile features, app stores and all of the things included as elements in the future of network services are predominantly hosted rather than simply connected. That makes a provider’s IT structure as critical as its network. Hosted services and features also make the architecture that binds these IT elements into a critically important set of cohesive resources.

The cloud is important to operators because it is the abstract model that nearly all providers are selecting for their own internal IT needs, which include hosting features and content, as well as supporting their back-offices or OSS/BSS systems. If service providers were to create a single cloud for all their diverse IT needs, it would be among the largest pools of IT resources ever built. And if cloud computing is an opportunity created by economy of scale, then operators will be the leading contenders to provide it.

This story works just as well in reverse. Network operators worldwide have listed cloud computing as one of their top three applications to create new revenues. A decision to offer cloud computing services and create infrastructure for these services -- as Verizon did by buying cloud provider Terremark -- will create an IT platform that can then be exploited for the operators’ own IT applications. You could consider this a “service-first” cloud evolution.

The fact that service provider clouds obtain optimum economies of scale by serving many different missions means that their design has to support a range of uses that most private or even public cloud infrastructures could elect to avoid.

An example is the classic “IaaS versus PaaS versus SaaS” debate. Operators that want to host SaaS providers’ services may need to offer their partners IaaS or PaaS clouds, or both. Most cloud providers elect to support one approach, but a network operator’s cloud will likely have to support all three, since they offer customers different functions:

  • IaaS services are the baseline cloud offering due to Amazon’s EC2 popularity.
  • SaaS services are mandatory for small business and consumer offerings
  • PaaS services are essential for some enterprise data center workload overflow and backup applications.

In short, all models are needed.

Operators turn to PaaS as service delivery platform architecture

Many network operators are now conceptualizing their own internal use of cloud infrastructure in PaaS terms as well. If we were to describe the architecture of a service delivery platform in modern terms, we’d call it a PaaS host because it combines a hardware platform with a structured set of middleware that creates a uniform development environment. Feature-building missions for the cloud are certain to be supported by assembling and even creating custom middleware.

For operators that want to offer app stores, developers are likely to operate inside a micro-PaaS sandbox that includes tools to manage the offerings and integrate them with operator billing and support applications.

IT vendors customize cloud middleware for providers

Operators have many choices of cloud architecture, and some of the popular IT giants are now customizing cloud middleware into packages for use by providers as well as enterprises. IBM’s Cloud Service Provider Platform (CSP2) and Microsoft’s Azure Platform Appliance are examples of this trend, and the use of an integrated toolkit has the advantage of ensuring compatibility and management commonality across the elements of cloud infrastructure. Some operators are also considering clouds created from open source or commercial dual-licensed software like Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus Enterprise Edition) and Hadoop’s Cloudera.

The key to successful cloud computing infrastructure

For operators, the key to creating successful cloud services and supporting internal IT on the same infrastructure is ensuring that an IaaS framework built on data center virtualization can be extended upward first to the platform and then to the services level without creating voids in the management processes, and without compromising a single-resource economy of scale value proposition.

In the final analysis, the combination of the economies of resources and management efficiency will define the provider cloud and differentiate it from other cloud computing offerings in the market.

About the author: Tom Nolle is president of CIMI Corporation, a strategic consulting firm specializing in telecommunications and data communications since 1982. He is the publisher of Netwatcher, a journal addressing advanced telecommunications strategy issues. Check out his networking blog, Uncommon Wisdom

This was last published in March 2011

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