Bob Otto


Is a private cloud the smartest thing to do?

Cloud computing’s emergence has not been without controversy. Many people, particularly those in the public sector, have argued that shared infrastructure isn’t reliable or secure enough for mission-critical work.

Their advocacy for “private clouds” — internally developed and hosted cloud infrastructure — has generated its own controversy. Specifically, some argue that private-cloud advocates miss the point of cloud computing, which is to shift consumption to more elastic, commoditized external sources. This allows internal teams to focus their more extensive domain knowledge on solving organization-specific challenges.

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As a result, some view private clouds as simply the justification used by traditionalists and “server huggers” to avoid necessary change. And in some cases, they have a point. Undoubtedly, some advocates for private clouds are just trying to preserve the existing status quo within their organization.

However, this unfortunate reality shouldn’t diminish the potential that private clouds offer — as they can be used to drive the necessary IT changes that some people fear.

Need for real-world strategies

Opinions differ on how large a role cloud computing can play in the enterprise. We can agree that security and other concerns will make some aspects of government computing off-limits to the public cloud for the foreseeable future. This means that many of our most critical applications and systems will not realize the cloud’s benefits, which include greater scalability, higher throughput, automated provisioning and support, and lower operating costs.

This points to the need for a hybrid strategy — relying on external resources where possible but using trusted internal resources where needed. Although a private-cloud option may not produce the same level of benefits as a public cloud, our research has shown that it still produces a very sizeable return-on-investment. Furthermore, it provides the foundation for modernizing your IT operations to become more accountable with the added ability to support more dynamic requirements.

What’s often overlooked is that cloud computing is also a de facto set of standards and architecture for more scalable and efficient computing, as well as a procurement model. Key technical components include virtualization, multicore commodity servers, multitenant application models, robust peer-to-peer networking and flexible storage.

Regardless of where the hosting and provisioning occurs, cloud-compliant applications and systems must be designed and configured to meet these requirements. In other words, managing your internal and external infrastructure to the same standards will simplify and streamline your operations.

Does your agency need pay-per-use?

One of the major knocks against private clouds is the belief that they introduce extraneous or costly features that you don’t need to manage an internally hosted system. As Gartner analyst Andrea Di Maio recently asked in a recent blog post:

“.. [Is] building a private cloud the smartest thing to do? Does the business really need all the scalability, elasticity, pay-per-use delivery style? . . . Reality is that for different kinds of applications, security requirements, workloads, different services may be needed to get the best possible value for money. Investing on building one’s own private cloud means investing capital, skills and credibility on one single basket and, for how good that can be, this may prevent (some) from seizing better cloud service opportunities as they become available.”

The answer to Di Maio’s first question is yes. Consider this analogy: What do you call a manufacturer with minimal insight into their costs, inventory or demand? Bankrupt, of course. Unfortunately, this is the situation too frequently in IT, where we often lack a metrics-based understanding of demand, consumption and other constraints. As a result, we provision on the basis of guesstimates. This leads to resource imbalances, performance bottlenecks or both.

The ultimate goal should be a hybrid strategy — public, community and private clouds — so that the environment can be optimized for specific requirements and constraints. The reality is that not all applications are suitable for the public cloud. However, nearly all systems will benefit from the cost, agility and performance advantages of a cloud-based environment. 

It may not be possible — or even desirable, as Di Maio suggests — to fully duplicate the level of automation and standardization offered by the public cloud. However, the growing maturity of the cloud means that most of the technology and expertise needed to build a private cloud is increasingly available off-the-shelf today.

Ultimately, the ability to segment, provision and monitor consumption at a more granular level is fundamental to managing IT like a business. Organizations are not monolithic, but have widely divergent priorities, resources and requirements. Shifting toward a cloud-based environment internally will allow you to accommodate these differences in the most optimal manner possible.

About the Author

Robert L. Otto is an executive vice president at Agilex Technologies. He served in the federal government for nearly 40 years, culminating in the position of chief information officer/chief technology officer at the U.S. Postal Service before his retirement in 2007.

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