At last, a solid definition of what a cloud looks like

NIST's reference architecture a milestone in building online services

National Institute of Standards and Technology officials this week will release the first version of the Cloud Computing Reference Architecture, which serves as a road map for IT managers to understand, select, design and deploy cloud infrastructures.

The reference architecture will be unveiled at the NIST Cloud Computing Forum and Workshop III, which will be held April 7-8 at the agency’s headquarters in Gaithersburg, Md., said Bob Bohn, cloud computing reference architecture lead at NIST.

“The vendor-neutral reference architecture is a collaborative product from academia, government and industry,” that was defined and finalized over 12 weeks, Bohn said.


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The objective was to define a neutral reference architecture consistent with the NIST definition of cloud computing. That means it has to represents the three cloud service models, the four deployment models and the five essential characteristics of the cloud.

The three cloud service models:

  1. Software as a service.
  2. Platform as a service.
  3. Infrastructure as a service.

The four deployment models:

  1. Private clouds.
  2. Community clouds.
  3. Public clouds.
  4. Hybrid clouds.

The five essential characteristics of the cloud are that it offers:

  1. On-demand and self-service.
  2. Broad network access.
  3. Resource pooling.
  4. Rapid elasticity.
  5. Measured service.

Standards experts have analyzed the architecture, looking for cloud relevance standards that apply to different sections of the reference architecture, Bohn said. There is also an associated taxonomy that goes with the reference architecture.

“So now the government can say this is what cloud computing looks like conceptually and these are the words we are going to use to describe it,” Bohn said. For example, the reference architecture will help define what a cloud consumer is or what a cloud broker can and cannot do.

The reference architecture is part of the NIST cloud strategy, which will get rolled up into the Office of Management and Budget’s cloud-first policy document, Bohn said. The cloud-first policy, part of the Office of Management and Budget's 25-point plan for IT reform, requires agencies to identify and move three applications to the cloud within 18 months.

Actually, the reference architecture is the second prong of the NIST cloud strategy, being developed in conjunction with the first step of that strategy, which is to define and target government business use cases for each cloud service delivery model. The third step in the strategy is to develop a cloud computing road map to translate, define and track cloud priorities.

Under the strategy, Bohn said, NIST cloud working groups receive information from CIOs and agency managers about their concerns and, based on that feedback, develop operational requirements related to security, interoperability and portability issues. That information is fed into the reference architecture to see if it can be described by the architecture. If not, the reference architecture will have to be adapted to accommodate the information.

The reference architecture is a major milestone for the government. “Now we have something solid we can work off of that we didn’t have 12 weeks ago,” Bohn said.

NIST security and standards workgroups will give status updates at the workshop. There will also be panels with agency CIOs talking about long-term adoption of cloud computing, Bohn said.

NIST will hold demonstrations of its infrastructure-as-a-service cloud simulator named Koala. Also on Friday afternoon, there will be an update on the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program.

Reader Comments

Wed, Apr 20, 2011 Mitchell Ummel

The most concise definition of Cloud Computing, I believe, is "IT computing resources packaged as a commodity and delivered as a utility." This definition gets to the heart of what Cloud Computing is all about. It's not about "what" it is (in fact, it's everything, technology-wise, we have today), it's all about the packaging and delivery.

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