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It's clear today the cloud represents a key strategic direction for IT organizations to consider. Many believe the cloud is useful for only a limited range of applications or as a convenient mechanism to share content. But the cloud -- in both the concept and its execution -- is much more than that. It provides a number of benefits, including scalability, reliability and cost control.
A bit of cloud history
But let's back up (oh, yes, backup to the cloud today is vital as well, but I digress…) a little to the early days of computing to see why the cloud is at once both novel and proven. Way back in the '70s, mainframes dominated the IT scene. These were large and expensive and of necessity shared via a mechanism called, oddly enough, timesharing. The process involved multiple users accessing the mainframe simultaneously, typically via dumb terminals and (very slow) dial-up modems. And, for all intents and purposes, though, this model contained the seeds of the cloud as we know it today.
The difference, of course, is that today's cloud benefits from a variety of innovations. Broadband (especially wireless) is ubiquitous. Client devices are more powerful and easier to use. The convenience and standardization of the Web provides easy access. And the cloud can host a vast range of applications and IT services for both businesses and consumers. As a result, we can now think of the cloud as simply a set of extensions to the functionality of whatever mobile device we happen to be using, universally available as long as we have connectivity.
Cloud as virtualization
The cloud of today is well beyond the curiosity stage -- it's become a vital element in both business and personal IT plans. This is because, as cool as today's handsets and tablets are, they are still very limited in their processing and storage capabilities.
Moreover, we need the cloud for unified communications, collaboration and all of the other communications-centric activities that are now essential. Think of the cloud, then, as another form of virtualization—transparently extending and enhancing our IT arsenal wherever we may roam. When you do that, it's easy to see how the cloud supports all manner of processing, storage and communications. Now comes the really interesting part.
From a network operations perspective, the cloud is becoming the preferred home for management-console functionality. It's no longer necessary to provision a local server, virtual machine or appliance to run a vital management application across a widely distributed array of branch and remote locations. Instead, an increasing number of wireless-LAN system vendors offer management as a service.
This means management-console functionality is hosted in the cloud and accounted for as an operational expense -- no capital expense involved or required. To date, the management-in-the-cloud approach has been applied primarily to WLAN systems aimed at the small and medium enterprise (SME) market, but there is no reason this strategy could not become common in every organizational wireless LAN (and even wired LANs, as unified wired/wireless networking becomes a necessity).
Pros and cons of management as a service
Think of the benefits here: no capital budget requirement; manageable operating expense; access to vital services on an anytime/anywhere basis (even on handsets over wide-area wireless networks); improved reliability and fault-tolerance; declining prices thanks to a competitive third-party market; and simplified scalability, even to global operations.
If this can be accomplished with network management software, what about other networking functions? Indeed, network function virtualization (NFV) is used to provision key elements of network infrastructure, replacing dedicated hardware with software running on servers in the cloud. This could be the future of enterprise networks as well, with local hardware reduced to access points (APs) as required for capacity and coverage. Ethernet switches would manage and provision these APs and power over Ethernet would drive them.
To be fair, those switches would also need to include a firewall, traffic management and optimization, and authentication. But this type of configuration is easy if not common today: Think of a hybrid switch/controller. Wide-area and very broadband Ethernet connectivity are now rapidly gaining steam as the preferred backhaul mechanism. This means essentially everything else in the networking -- and even IT overall -- arsenals can be provisioned in the cloud as a service. This includes other management services (most notably enterprise mobility management) as well as storage and backup. We can even see the day when primary storage is provisioned entirely in the cloud. And by the way, with some vendors offering infrastructure on a pay-as-you-go basis, IT capital budgets may eventually become a thing of the past.
Networking as a cloud service? Why not? With IT as a service, or ITaaS, steadily gaining ground everywhere, we may in fact be looking at the rise of the ultimate acronym, EaaS, for everything as a service. Stay tuned.
Read more about network as a service for cloud connectivity.