SAN JOSE, Calif. Cisco Systems will become the latest company to jump on the cloud computing bandwagon when it puts some specifics behind its Unified Computing initiative at a press event Monday (March 16).
Cloud computing represents both the next big era in computing and the architecture du jour of an industry where strategy is typically way out in front of execution.
The concept is simple. Big data centers act as host computers remotely running any application from spreadsheets and word processors to big back-end corporate computing jobs.
It's a win/win. Users can tap into all the compute muscle they need in pay-as-you go plans. Data centers that typically consume tons of electricity can raise the utilization rates of their servers that can slump to as low as single-digit percentage points--and make a few extra bucks in the process.
Observers say this could be the next big phase of computing following the mainframe, minicomputer, PC and mobile eras. It is essentially the architecture that could drive computing to become a utility, like electricity, that a few people manage well and anyone can tap on demand.
It's already up and running for pioneers such as Amazon that started its EC2 business a couple years ago. Google has a service, and Microsoft announced a beta called Azure late last year and announced a research effort on the topic recently. Web 2.0 wunderkinds such as Facebook already run on other people's cloud services.
For the last few years, engineers have been thrashing through the issues posed by the rapid growth of mega data centers. For example, server makers have adopted the blades-in-a-box designs used by telecom systems in large central offices. The systems typically use proprietary plug in modules to provide network and storage switching.
This is where Cisco may want to turn the tables. The company must have been asking itself for the last few years why it builds proprietary Ethernet switch modules for IBM, HP and Dell boxes when it can define its own compute box and let the server companies sell blades into it. Everybody wants to own the logo on the outside of the box right?
Sun Microsystems tried to take a leap into the future by rolling out a data center in a transport container complete with servers, networking and air con. Pundits say this sort of design could become the basic unit of tomorrow's mega data centers.
As usually the industry is running ahead of itself. Less than two years ago the bleeding edge of data center design was the concept of a unified fabric. The idea was to put all data center traffic on one set of wires rather than separate Fibre Channel storage nets, Ethernet nets and Infiniband server clusters.
This movement gave birth to Fibre Channel over Ethernet. The industry has yet to roll out a full and compelling set of FCoE products based on optimized ASICs and software. It's worth noting Cisco has been more on the vanguard of this particular movement.
But never mind, today the market-speak of the hour is cloud. You gotta have cloud something to be a player. At least a cloud slide in your Powerpoint.
Until Monday, that's all Cisco really had, lots of cloudy slides. The company has been teasing users and the press for weeks with vague talk about its vision, no doubt while it was putting a concrete plan in place in the background.
There are plenty of meaty technical issues around cloud computing engineers still need to address such as defining a standard set of APIs and improving reliability and security of services. Researchers at Berkeley articulated many of them in a recent white paper.
This work will take years. Before it is completed the ever-restless computer industry will have moved on to its next big idea and mantra.