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Do you have what it takes to build and run your own private cloud?

Building and operating a private cloud ourselves is simple, right? Give our experienced IT folks a budget for hardware and software, a clear mandate, and deadlines, and we’re likely to succeed. That’s what we’ve always done, and it’s worked out tolerably well. Private cloud isn’t so different from running our own virtual machine environment, and we do that already, so why wouldn’t we succeed? I hear this sentiment expressed often so it seems to be a widely held belief. But it’s wrong precisely 97.73 percent of the time – I measured. Unfortunately, too many organizations act on this mistaken belief and experience unnecessary hurt as a result.

My good friend Keith Hudgins made this point cogently in his presentation at the CloudConnect conference in Chicago. Keith is one of the few people who really knows what it takes to build and run a cloud: he was part of the core team with me building KT’s public cloud service in South Korea, and he is currently Senior Cloud Engineer at enStratus where he helps enterprises get their private clouds to work properly. Keith’s presentation was sobering for the audience members, several of whom said they plan to reevaluate their private cloud initiatives as a result.

If you want to succeed at your own private cloud you need to consider these four critical aspects: your users, your competition, your skills, and your technology. Know these four and you have a fighting chance to make it. If not, get help – or prepare for disappointment.

Know your users

Different users need different applications, and your cloud must be designed to support the required applications. Private clouds might have three different types of users:

  • Regular desktop users, the kind of user most likely found in your Finance, HR, Sales, and Marketing organizations, will need your cloud to support the applications your IT department currently supports already: CRM, accounting, ERP, and business applications your IT department is already familiar with.
  • Software R&D staff will need your cloud to support the development environment, tools, and deployment processes they’re already using. This group will also likely need training to properly architect and operate reliable applications in a distributed environment.
  • IT staff will need your cloud to support core capabilities such as backup, directory management, and file sharing.
Ask your users what applications they are using and what they need the cloud to support.

Know your competition

Odds are your users already use public cloud services, and – like it or not – your own private cloud will be competing against those public alternatives. How well do public cloud services meet your users’ needs?

  • How reliable is their service? How does this compare to your own historical reliability?
  • How easy are they to use? Do public cloud service customers need multiple levels of corporate approval to acquire resources, or is the ordering and fulfillment process seamless and extremely short – a few minutes at most from order to delivery? Can you deliver the same or better usability?
  • How good is their support? Are there multiple sources for expertise and communities where users can share solutions and experience?
  • How rich is their ecosystem? How easy is it to employ a vast variety of tools and seamlessly integrated value-added services?
Determining how well your users’ needs are met by existing public cloud alternatives will give you a good idea of what you need to provide in order to achieve successful adoption of your private cloud.

Know your skills

The skills required to build and operate a cloud are not taught in classes, they’re learned by experience. These include:

  • System administration. Okay, this one is taught in classes, but the issues you’ll experience in a cloud environment are much more complicated and at a larger scale than you will normally encounter elsewhere. Keith suggested that OpenStack and Eucalyptus will be a challenge for your team if they lack linux administration skills.
  • Storage management skills are critical because storage is the most complicated technical aspect of a cloud. Keith emphasized the importance of NAS and iSCSI setup and management experience.
  • Networking is a key element of the cloud and networking expertise must be a part of your core cloud engineering team.
  • Automation will dictate how quickly you can recover from problems, so you must be experienced in its use and integrating automation tools into your workflow. Identical inputs (that is, identical hardware revisions) must always yield identical outputs, and that is only possible at a large scale with automation. Keith pointed out that automation takes time to produce. Make sure your team is proficient with the automation tools that work best with your technology choices.

Get these skills if you don’t have them. They will influence your choice of hardware and software.

Know your technology

Cloud is powered by technology, so you’ll need expertise in at least the following four technical areas to build and run it yourself.

  • Cloud Management Software is the layer that provisions cloud guests and sits between the API and the hypervisor. If you can’t explain the differences between the four major cloud management software options – CloudStack, OpenStack, Eucalyptus, and OpenNebula, then you do not have the expertise to choose the right one for your needs.
  • Storage, Keith pointed out, is by far the most complicated technical aspect to get right in a cloud. Local guest storage is the simplest to build and operate, but limits the range of applications that can be easily supported on the cloud. Attached storage increases flexibility at the cost of complexity. And object storage requires lots and lots of disks. Your options will be influenced by your choice of cloud management software, and any change to the default configurations will require serious development and testing to get it right.
  • Hardware and the way you manage it is the most important choice you can make. Of all the components in a cloud the hardware is what is going to break, so the ease with which you can replace hardware will dictate the maintenance headache. Keith provided some hard-won tips: make sure your hardware vendor can supply identical hardware down to the BIOS revision, create (automated) procedures to verify or reject hardware as it is delivered, and diligently avoid hardware inconsistencies since they greatly increase the complexity of the endeavor.
Your choices in the above three technology categories should be guided by your needs, but remember: you can only choose wisely if you have appropriate expertise in these technologies.

Do you have what it takes?

The above four aspects are critical to successfully building and operating your own private cloud. There are other success factors – know your strategy, know your business model, and use effective project management – that are part of any successful technological change. But the above four are critical in any private cloud initiative. So, how do you rate on these aspects?

Odds are, you don’t have the expertise required to do it yourself.

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