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Cloud Computing Could Support Network-Centric Operation

June 2009
By Bob Gourley

U.S. Defense Department’s strategic plan and cloud computing mesh well.

Cloud computing could give a major assist to the U.S. Defense Department’s information technology strategy for implementing network-centric operations.

The term cloud computing is used in two different ways in the Defense Department. In the general sense, cloud computing is any capability delivered over a network. If it is not local computing, it is from the cloud. Using this definition, all net-centric computing and almost all information technology is cloud computing.

Technologist and enterprise architects in the Defense Department use the term in another way. To them, cloud computing implies new ways of providing capability on demand by use of virtualized resources. It involves pools of storage, network, processing and other computational resources that can be allocated efficiently on demand. It also implies far more agility in support of operational missions.

The Office of the Secretary of Defense intends to leverage cloud computing to achieve results called for in the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Networks and Information Integration’s Strategic Plan for 2008-2009.This plan articulates goals for the department’s information technology architecture designed to enhance information sharing, security and agility. The goals include accelerating net-centric transformation, using information as a strategic asset, ensuring an interoperable infrastructure, assuring information access and security, and ensuring a good return on investment. Enabling constructs for achieving these goals include service-oriented architecture (SOA) and Web 2.0.

A number of key industry capabilities and trends are relevant to the Defense Department’s plans. Major information technology powerhouses—including Microsoft, Sun Microsystems, IBM, Google and Oracle—are addressing the major shift to cloud computing in slightly different ways, but all capture the essence similarly.

Tim O’Reilly, chief executive officer of O’Reilly Media, considers cloud computing to be the foundation for the next generation of computing. Cloud computing has long been a goal that industry was building toward, with a network of networks seen as the platform for all significant computing—in 1982, Sun Microsystems was established with the vision that the network is the computer. O’Reilly articulates the ideal goal of cloud computing being that every device a person thinks of as a computer today is really just a device that connects into the grid of connected computers to deliver required services.

Nicholas Carr, a popular contemporary writer on information technology, has examined concepts such as the true strategic value of information technology to an organization. In 2003 he penned a Harvard Business Review article, “IT Doesn’t Matter,” in which he argued that the strategic importance of information technology had diminished in inverse proportion to its use, because it was now so commonplace. In 2004 he published another piece, “The End of Corporate Computing,” in the MIT Sloan Management Review. In that article, he argued that companies increasingly will purchase information technology as a utility service from outside suppliers.

Carr now is documenting the move to cloud computing in a book titled The Big Switch, where he draws parallels to the shift early last century to the use of electricity as a utility. One hundred years ago, companies stopped generating their own power and plugged into the newly built electric grid. The inexpensive power provided by utilities did not merely change how businesses operate. It set off a chain reaction of economic and social transformations that brought the modern world into existence. Carr writes that today a similar revolution is under way. Hooked up to the Internet’s global computing grid, information-processing plants have begun pumping data and software into homes and businesses. So now, computing is turning into a utility.

Every company that provides information technology hardware, software or services now contributes to cloud computing. One can measure the state of cloud computing by examining capabilities available in real time from Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Salesforce.com and VMware.

The core of Google’s business is all in cloud computing. Services delivered over network connections include search; e-mail; online mapping; office productivity tools (documents, spreadsheets, presentations, databases); collaboration; social networking; and voice, video and data services. Users can subscribe to these services for free or pay for increased levels of service and support. As an example of the types of cloud services provided, this article was written in the Google cloud. While being written, it was securely saved and backed up in a way that only the author could access. When the draft was nearly done, it was shared with a small number of reviewers. Once finalized, the article was stored as a PDF file for distribution. All this was done in a cloud with good security and privacy features.

As the world’s largest online retailer, Amazon’s business core is e-commerce. While e-commerce itself can be considered cloud computing, Amazon also has been providing capabilities that give information technology departments direct access to Amazon compute power. Key examples include the company’s Simple Storage Services (S3) and Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2). Any Internet user can access storage in S3 and access stored objects from anywhere on the Internet. EC2 is a virtual computing infrastructure able to run diverse applications ranging from Web hosts to simulations. These capabilities all are available for a very low cost per user.

Traditionally, Microsoft’s core business has been in device operating systems and device office automation software. However, the company always has been in the server business and is in every Defense Department data center today. Since the early days of the Internet, Microsoft also has provided Web hosting, online e-mail and many other cloud services. Now, Microsoft also provides office automation capabilities via a cloud (Office Live) in an approach referred to as “Software Plus Services” to allow synchronous/asynchronous integration of online cloud documents with their traditional offline desktop-resident versions.

The core mission of Salesforce.com has been customer relationship management products. However, in pursuit of this core, Salesforce.com has established itself as the thought leader in the area of software as a service and is delivering an extensive suite of capabilities via the Internet. A key capability is the site Force.com, which enables external developers to create add-on applications that integrate with the main Salesforce.com application and are hosted on Salesforce.com’s infrastructure.

VMware provides several technologies of critical importance to enabling cloud computing, and it also has started offering its own cloud computing on demand capability, called vCloud. This type of capability enables enterprises to leverage virtualized clouds inside their own information technology infrastructure or to be hosted with external service providers.

The Defense Department’s net-centric strategy will be complemented by many industry cloud computing trends, such as delivering reliable services through data centers that make extensive use of virtualization. These services are available anywhere in the world, with connection to a network giving access to compute power as if it were local. Commercial offerings increasingly are based on quality-of-service agreements spelling out expected levels of performance and availability. Open-source software and open standards are the foundations for most cloud computing today—even Microsoft has announced its own increased commitment to open standards and full publication of standards and interfaces in support of its cloud computing.

Consumers of cloud computing capabilities are not budgeting or paying for infrastructure; they pay for capability, frequently on a subscription basis. Utilization of computing resources is optimized through capabilities such as virtualization because it allows for otherwise idle hardware to be put to use. Consumers do not have to engineer for peak load; that is the responsibility of their information technology providers.

Industry experience with cloud computing has resulted in extensive documentation on key characteristics that users should expect from the capability.

One of the most important characteristics of cloud computing is the fact that customer capital expenditure is minimized, which lowers barriers to entry. The infrastructure is owned by the provider and does not need to be purchased for one-time or infrequent intensive computing tasks.

Device and location independence enables users to access systems regardless of their locality or what device they are using.

Multi-tenancy enables sharing of resources and costs among a large pool of users. This allows for centralization of infrastructure in areas with lower costs for real estate, electricity and other expenses. It also creates peak-load capacity increases because users do not need to engineer for the highest possible load levels.

Another advantage of multi-tenancy is utilization and efficiency improvements for systems that are often only 10 percent to 20 percent utilized. Scalability meets changing user demands quickly without users having to engineer for peak loads. Massive scalability and large user bases are common but not an absolute requirement. In addition, it allows on-demand allocation and de-allocation of central processing unit (CPU), storage and network bandwidth.

Cloud computing also offers numerous security and reliability advantages that would be useful for warfighters. Performance is monitored and consistent.

Reliability is enhanced by multiple redundant sites, which makes it suitable for continuity of operations and disaster recovery. Security typically improves as a result of centralization of data and increased security-focused resources. Concerns exist about loss of control over certain sensitive data, but when security is designed in from the beginning, cloud architectures are significantly more secure than non-cloud approaches.

Sustainability is achieved through improved resource utilization, more efficient systems and carbon neutrality. Nonetheless, computers and associated infrastructure are major consumers of energy.

Some lessons for the Defense Department already are clear from industry experience with cloud computing. First is the importance of mission-focused engineering. This key point already is embodied in the strategic plan, but it is worth restating to keep it at the forefront of all discussions about cloud computing in the department.

Also paramount is the continual need for security, including data confidentiality, integrity and availability. All Defense Department computing approaches must be engineered to conform to department security guidelines. Cloud computing, when engineered properly, could make dramatic, positive changes to the mission assurance posture of the department. Cloud computing enables stronger endpoint security and better data protection. It also enables the use of thin clients and the many security benefits they provide.

Also, the department will always need instantaneously available data backup in the cloud. Ensured availability under all circumstances is a key benefit of smart cloud computing approaches.

The strategic plan’s goals also point to the continual need for open source and open standards. Most cloud infrastructure today is based on open source (Linux, Solaris, MySQL, Glassfish, Hadoop), and this positive trend will help in net-centric approaches. According to the IDC Group, open-source software is “the most significant, all-encompassing and long-term trend that the software industry has seen since the early 1980s.” Gartner projects that by 2012, 90 percent of the world’s companies will be using open-source software. This all indicates open source and open standards should be a key principle for Defense Department cloud computing and other net-centric approaches.

Cloud computing contributions to net-centric operations increase interoperability as the code, application programming interfaces and interfaces for cloud computing are secure but are widely published. Office of the Secretary of Defense involvement in open-source and open-standards communities should continue and be accelerated, because cloud computing open standards increasingly are being discussed and designed by open-standards bodies such as the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS), Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and the Liberty Alliance. Documents and other formats used by the Office of the Secretary of Defense cloud computing activities will be open and available for all authorized users on all devices.

While cloud computing offers a relatively low barrier to entry, it is critical also to evaluate barriers to exit for approaches to cloud computing. Too frequently the cost of exiting an approach is not considered, resulting in lock-in to a capability that may soon be inefficient.

The Defense Department will need to evaluate the cost of “private clouds.” For at least the near term, the department will remain a provider of private cloud capabilities where security dictates ownership levels of control over compute power. As such, the department must continually engineer for change and technology insertion, which underscores the need for low barriers to exist in design criteria.

The lesson for the Defense Department is that all of these characteristics are achievable and can be optimized by well-engineered, central planning activities that focus on organizational mission.

Bob Gourley is the founder and chief technology officer (CTO) of Crucial Point LLC. He formerly was CTO of the Defense Intelligence Agency.