Cloud computing growth will be driven by the proliferation of cloud brokerages, offering packages of cloud services from a selection of different providers and adding value through managed access or enhanced security.

This is the view of Ken O'Hagan, chief technology officer of HP Software for the UK and Ireland. O'Hagan told Techworld that the cloud brokerage model is going to become a new market segment, with brokers offering highly transactional systems comprising applications, web and database services.

“Right now, we see a lot of cloud providers offering individual components that any kind of composite business service would have to be built from. So you have some providers offering cloud databases, some offering cloud application servers, and of course web servers have been available through ISPs and hosting providers for some time,” said O'Hagan.

“To build a business service on those three foundation blocks, you potentially need to span three or more different cloud providers, which makes the whole process very complex – and, by the way, most organisations are not systems integrators, they just want to consume services. What brokers do is take resources from multiple providers, white-box them and present them as an easily consumable package.”

As well as simplifying things for the end user, this also presents an attractive business model for the service provider, explained O'Hagan. Currently, the majority of cloud services are provided by well-established organisations with large amounts of capital available to them to stand up the cost of the servers, storage and networking before taking on any customers; the brokerage model opens the market up to smaller players allowing them to act as “virtual service providers”.

“One of the best features of cloud is that nobody knows how it's delivered,” he said. “They can set it up on string and yoghurt pots initially, and then roll it up onto nice shiny new equipment once they know that there's a demand for it. It's a much more consumer-friendly model for deploying and running services over the long term.”

O'Hagan said another advantage of this model is that it is extremely flexible. Brokers might use databases from one provider one month and then switch to another provider the next month, allowing them to offer services at the best possible price point. If one provider is experiencing performance issues, the broker can simply select another solution.

Organisations are charged for cloud services based on the assets that those services sit on – the infrastructure, the support organisation, the overheads etc. – as well as their usage. Billing mechanisms can be automated and adjusted according to provider.

Taking cautious steps to the cloud

Cloud brokers build on the maturity of the market and on the understanding that cloud is now a viable delivery mechanism for business services. However, not all organisations are necessarily ready to move to a cloud model, warned O'Hagan.

“You might be in a position where you need to start looking at how you automate what you're doing today. When you get to an automated state, you need to look at how you get commonality across functions and then, using those building blocks, you're finally in a position to move to cloud and be able to embrace it more fully.”

Moreover, a lot of applications are not ready to be run in a cloud environment. Most organisations are looking at ultimately moving to a hybrid delivery model, where they will have some systems in-house, some systems out in the cloud, and some that are a composite of both.

“A lot of financial institutes still have mainframes at the back end, and I'm pretty sure you don't get a cloud mainframe yet,” said O'Hagan. “So a lot of applications need to be cloud-enabled, to make them context-aware and understand the fact that they're running in a multi-tenant high-availability environment. There's things that need to be designed and engineered into the applications to make them more robust and reliable in that kind of delivery mechanism.”

O'Hagan said that most customers are still just putting a toe in the water, and experimenting with non-essential applications to get a feel for what kind of impact cloud is going to have on their productivity. However, he is confident that business-critical applications will also eventually be run in the cloud.

“Technically, can you do it? Absolutely. Are businesses ready for it culturally? That's a different question. You have to make the move with your eyes open. Organisations are not going to go from all in-house one day to all-cloud the next. You have to keep the lights on during that transition period, and to do that you need something that is capable of offering a hybrid service environment.”

Enabling transparent monitoring

The main barrier to adoption is that many businesses are still reluctant to relinquish control of security and “trust a third party to guard the crown jewels on their behalf,” said O'Hagan.

A number of recent high-profile cloud outages, such as the one that brought down Microsoft's Azure platform last week, have done nothing to alleviate these fears. However, O'Hagan said that the key to gaining trust is to provide organisations with transparency into their cloud environment.

“If you're going to commit your business critical systems to the cloud, you need to be sure that's not going to happen – or if it is going to happen, you can see it before it happens and deal with it and potentially prevent it from happening. But consuming a service from a cloud provider doesn't give you the right to get inside that service and do traditional monitoring,” he said.

“We have to come up with passive ways, and non-intrusive ways of monitoring these systems, because they're forming part of our critical business going forward. It's a very fine line. You don't want to put an agent on there, because it could cause all sorts of deadlocks and contention that could potentially cause the problem you're trying to avoid in the first place.”

HP aims to solve this problem with the latest version of its Business Service Management (BSM) software – an agentless solution that the company claims can analyse both cloud environments and legacy IT environments together, to identify service issues that could potentially be harmful to the business before they occur.

“Ideally, you need to be able to move from an in-house delivery mechanism to a cloud mechanism seamlessly. The user's got the service they need and they shouldn't know, or care, how it's delivered to them,” said O'Hagan.

Building confidence in the cloud

A good way to build your organisation's confidence in the cloud is to understand the constraints of the Data Protection Act, said O'Hagan, in particular, the clauses around ensuring the physical and technological security of data that pertains to an individual.

Beyond that, it is just a matter of being prudent. O'Hagan recommends dealing with reputable providers that have got the requisite level of infrastructure and setup behind them, and initially choosing services to put into the cloud that are not necessarily mission-critical, but will be representative of a significant system that is worth consideration.

“There's no point putting out the website that syndicates lottery numbers each Friday – that doesn't do anything for the business. What you want to do is pick something like a collaboration solution or an email solution, or look at rolling out a trial of virtual desktop solutions to remote workers, to show how the benefits can be realised with these kind of services.”

O'Hagan compared cloud computing to the Java programming language, which when it emerged in the 1990s was not considered to be suitable for the mainstream. Nowadays, the vast majority of business services are written in Java.

“I think cloud is going to go the same way,” he said. “Yes, people see where it's going, people see the value of it and understand the value of it, people see that they can get some benefit from the flexibility, but right now it's still growing and forming and crystallising into what it's actually going to become.”

Technology providers like HP expect the hybrid cloud model to prevail for the forseeable future. As more and more applications become cloud-ready over the next over the next two to three years, O'Hagan believes that confidence will build in cloud as an enterprise-class delivery mechanism for business services.