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Cloud computing

Contrary to popular belief, the cloud won't manage itself Add to ...

Everywhere we look today, someone is touting a computing cloud. But not a whole lot is said about managing one. In fact, the cloud is promoted as something that mostly takes care of itself.

But this is wishful thinking. Any IT infrastructure needs to be managed by someone and, in turn, that someone – if it's a third party – needs some oversight from its customer.

With a private cloud, company IT is in the hot seat. And for many companies, private clouds are the only way to go.

A private cloud is an infrastructure hosted within a company, or hosted specifically for it at an external provider, that uses cloud technology to make it easy for users to access the services and data they need.

System Center 2012, Microsoft’s newest version of the management tool, helps customers build and manage clouds of all kinds, especially private ones. Unlike previous versions of this product family, which were sold as a series of independent programs, System Center 2012 is offered as a single purchase containing all components.

Key to the suite is the Service Catalog, an Intranet-based list of offerings that gives users the ability to select and create their own private clouds from preconfigured templates, taking some of the burden from IT and allowing users to satisfy their needs immediately rather than being stuck in an endless IT queue.

At its recent reviewer’s workshop at Microsoft Corp. headquarters in Redmond, Wash., Brad Anderson, the company’s vice-president for the management and security division, noted that this is a good thing for IT. “If the infrastructure team are seen as roadblocks,” he noted, “application owners will go around them, to the public cloud.”

While the private cloud is in a nascent state in Canada, as many as 10 per cent of virtual machines will be deployed in private clouds this year, says IDC Canada’s research director for infrastructure solutions, David Senf. And the fastest growing cost in the data centre is management. “We still see a lot of labour-intensive manual approaches in Canadian firms,” he says. “So when we see announcements around System Center 2012 and VMware's vCenter [a management console for virtual environments] they're ahead of where the market is today.”

Cloud adoption today is ad-hoc, not strategic, he says. Deciding which deployment model to use is as much a business decision as a technology one.

The technology does matter, though, and System Center 2012 introduces some critical pieces. IT can create templates for servers, or collections of servers, list them on System Center’s self-service portal on the company intranet, and thus allow authorized users to create their own clouds with a single click.

A template can be built that creates a single virtual machine, or a single template can define an entire system, such as an e-commerce website with back-end database, application server and Web front end.

IT, in partnership with the business, sets quotas of available resources for each department, or even for each user within a department, so no one group or user can devour all allocated resources.

Since System Center 2012 is sold as a unit, rather than as independent components, customers can take advantage of the full gamut of management tools that handle everything from anti-malware to process automation, inside and outside one's clouds.

Since System Center 2012 is an initial version of the integrated suite, there are still some disconnects here and there among components.

For example, it can't link to information in other components when creating the service catalogue in the self-service portal. IT has to export data from the other pieces of the suite, and import it into the portal. Full integration will occur in later versions of the suite.

Despite this, there is considerable automation. For example, IT can create workflows that allow a business unit to manage its own users and approvals. Microsoft describes it as “choice with constraints” – each user has a defined role, and is able to perform any tasks allowed to that role.

All this gives users and IT the best of both worlds: Users get the infrastructure they need in their own private clouds, and IT retains sufficient control to allow it to manage and protect company assets.

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