Private clouds, hosted or on-premise, are rapidly becoming commonplace. More and more businesses are learning of cloud computing and seeing that running their own cloud is both feasible and potentially valuable.
But due to a general lack of cloud knowledge, it is becoming more and more common that clouds are recommended when they do not suit the needs of the business at all. Often this happens when people confuse private clouds with traditional virtualization management systems.
A cloud is a special type of virtualization platform and fills a unique niche. Cloud computing takes traditional virtualization and layers it with automated scaling and provisioning that allows for rapid, horizontal scaling of applications. This is not a normal business need.
Cloud also lends itself, and is often tied to, self-service of resource provisioning. But this alone does not make an IT environment a cloud nor justify the move to a cloud platform—although it could be an added incentive.
What makes the cloud interesting is the ability to provide self-service portals to end users and the ability for applications to self-provision themselves. These are the critical aspects that set a cloud platform apart from traditional virtualization.
However, you don't have to set up a cloud in order to gain features such as simplified whole-domain system management from a single pane of glass, large-scale consolidation, easy migration between hardware systems, rapid provisioning of new systems, high availability, etc. These features are all available in other ways, primarily through or on top of standard platform virtualization.
It is not that these features cannot be made available in a private cloud, but these features are not aspects of the cloud. Rather, they are aspects of the underlying virtualization platform. The cloud layer is above these and simply passes through the benefits of the underlying layers.
Often companies move to the cloud because they mistakenly believe that many of the features commonly associated with private clouds are not available in some other, simpler form. This is rarely the case.
Normal virtualization platforms, such as VMware's vSphere and Microsoft's HyperV, offer all of these options. They can be used to make robust clusters of physical servers, managed from a single interface, with incredibly high reliability and rapid provisioning of new systems that require minimal specialty knowledge from the IT department and maintain traditional business workflows.
In fact, most of the time when I am speaking with businesses that believe that they may be interested in pursuing the ownership of their own cloud, the features that they really want are not cloud features at all.
The term "cloud" has simply become so popular recently that people begin to assume that all kinds of important features must be attributed to it. But this is simply not the case.
The private cloud remains, and will remain, a predominantly niche solution appropriate for only a very small number of companies.
By contrast, the use of public clouds or the use of hosted services delivered from cloud platforms will become, and indeed has already become, nearly ubiquitous. But single-company ownership of a private cloud is a long way from being a critical need for most businesses, and in many cases, I suspect, never will become so.
Private clouds shine in two key areas. The first is for a business that needs a large number of temporary or ad hoc systems "spun up" on a regular basis. This often occurs with large development teams and application testing groups, especially if these groups target multiple operating systems. For these groups, the ability to provision temporary testing systems or lab systems rapidly can be very advantageous.
And cloud computing's ability to expose provisioning tools that allow business customers to create, manage and destroy their own system instances with built-in charge back mechanisms can be very beneficial to corporate efficiency. The interaction between the IT department and the end users becomes nearly frictionless for this transaction. Responsibility for maintaining the cloud as a whole can easily be segregated from the responsibilities of maintaining individual systems.
While it is seldom used in this manner for production workloads, private cloud allows a self-service approach that many business units desperately seek today. It is impractical on a small scale, due to the overhead of creating and maintaining the cloud platform itself. But on a large scale, the private cloud can be hugely productive.
In addition to technical advantages, this aspect of cloud computing can serve as a model for thinking of IT as an internal service provider and departments as customers. We have long discussed IT and other business units in these terms but we rarely truly think of them in this way.