5 Cloud Characteristics

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By Kevin Mahoney

My inbox receives daily articles on an array of cloud-related topics such as “Cloud Migration Strategies,” “10 Ways the Cloud Is Changing the World,” “Choose the Best Cloud for Your Enterprise,” and on and on. The daily barrage makes my head spin with all its marketing speak. What do we actually mean when we say “the cloud,” and what are the essential characteristics that make up cloud technology?

Let’s begin with a quick visit to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (nist.gov) to learn what cloud computing is. The NIST guidelines on information privacy and security served as the basis for the requirements eventually embodied in the HIPAA and HITECH legislation:

“Cloud computing is a model for enabling ubiquitous, convenient, on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources (e.g., networks, servers, storage, applications, and services) that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort or service provider interaction. This cloud model is composed of five essential characteristics . . .”

This definition tells us that the cloud is convenient, on-demand, and available for many resources, including networks, servers, storage, applications, and services. It also tells us that there is minimal management effort and plenty of self-service aspects to the cloud.

Cloud technologies are all about separating the physical IT resources from the actual underlying infrastructure. This is virtualization technology at its finest and applies to the many resources available to us in this service-oriented model. For example, when we think about our cloud-based email accounts, we are no longer thinking about Microsoft Exchange as an email service. We now are thinking about Google, Yahoo, and other such cloud-based email applications. When we are using a hosted storage service, we are not thinking about rack upon rack of storage in our data centers; instead we are thinking about services such as Dropbox Inc.’s Dropbox and Microsoft’s OneDrive.

What a win-win scenario cloud technologies bring to the table! It’s a win-win for users because it is on-demand, contains self-service features, is highly available, and presents users with all kinds of interactive interfaces or APIs. Plus, cloud technology providers are attractive because they help their customers reduce costs, better utilize equipment, provide end users with an engaging experience, and build a fail-in-place environment.

Of course, it’s easy for some to say, “What’s the big deal? All these technologies have been around for quite some time. Virtualization, for example, has been around since the 1970s. What’s so special about today?” The growing trends toward consolidation, automation, and standardization are what make today’s cloud computing so interesting. Computing and application power are being consolidated into central data centers. Automation provides timesaving and self-service technologies. And standardization enables all vendors to work together. These trends bring us the robust solutions we’ve come to know as cloud computing.

The NIST definition goes on to outline five essential characteristics of the cloud: on-demand self-service, broad network access, resource pooling, rapid elasticity, and measured service. Let’s talk briefly about each of these.

1) On-Demand Self-Service: When one thinks of on-demand self-service, Dropbox and OneDrive usually come to mind. Both are excellent services. Before the cloud, when we needed additional storage we contacted our provider, got a quote, negotiated contracts, attended to other time-consuming details, and eventually ordered and installed the hardware. Not today. With the cloud, adding additional storage is accomplished quickly through a self-service cloud portal. Gone are the red tape and administrative headaches. Although, let’s be clear, there are still contracts and legal agreements with ample fine print to read before signing up.

2) Broad Network Access: This leads into the next characteristic, which is broad network access. What good is my additional storage if it is not able to be accessed by a variety of devices? It is important to have access to these resources anytime and anywhere, assuming this is appropriate for your business. After all, you might be running a private cloud to which access is limited by design. Otherwise it is important to allow access from multiple devices including smartphones, tablet computers, desktop computers, and even game consoles such as Xbox. Using OneDrive, for example, I can access my shared storage resource from all of these devices without issue. I can access this storage from my office, my home, and even my local Dunkin’ Donuts.

3) Resource Pooling: Next on the list is the concept of resource pooling. One way to look at resource pooling is to think about the massive data centers built or being built around the country by folks such as AWS, Microsoft, and Google. Inside each of these data centers lives equipment from Cisco, VMware, NetApp, EMC, and Red Hat to name a few. All this technology works together to provide a multi-tenant environment for many different customers with many different needs. Resources, both physical and virtual, are pooled within these data centers and assigned dynamically to customers. In fact, customers often don’t know exactly where their resources exist, nor do resources of one customer interact with those of another. While a customer can usually pick a general location for their resources – the U.S. Northeast, for example – even within this area one doesn’t really know exactly where everything is coming from.

4) Rapid Elasticity: Rapid elasticity means that cloud capabilities can be dynamically provisioned and released. The best way to visualize this concept is to imagine a small start-up business that needs a website. The website is up, customers begin to arrive, and the business starts to grow. As news travels, the business grows more rapidly. Additional computing power is needed to meet these growing needs. A slump occurs, fewer resources are required, then growth returns, and so on. This ever-changing atmosphere helps to illustrate the elastic needs of many organizations. Cloud technologies satisfy these dynamic raw resource needs by easily adjusting both physically and financially to the ever-changing needs of a growing business.

5) Measured Service: Elasticity goes hand in hand with the final characteristic: measured service. Cloud providers can automatically control and optimize resources based on the type of service or resource. Back to the OneDrive example, Microsoft will meter storage usage, provide reports, and maintain a consistent and optimized solution. This provides transparency for both the user and the provider.

So there you have it: the five cloud characteristics as defined by NIST. They are an important part of today’s fundamental cloud-technology blueprint.

Kevin Mahoney is a hospital- and healthcare-related account advocate and sales engineer at Amtelco, a manufacturer and supplier of call center solutions located in McFarland, Wisconsin. Contact him at kmahoney@amtelco.com.

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