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Redefining the Cloud: Blurring the Lines Between Virtual & Physical Cloud

As technology advances and the line between virtual, physical and the cloud will continue to blur

There's lots of talk today about the "cloud" today. But what exactly is it? Some may argue that the cloud is just marketing hype - a buzzword for a broad range of solutions being billed the latest, greatest trend that everyone is trying to exploit. Others - who oftentimes have a vested interest in a single product - may try to narrowly define the cloud as mandatory technical reference architecture comprised of a specific virtualization software residing on a particular hardware platform.

But, in reality, the cloud is something in between those two extremes. It can be a combination of virtual, physical and hosted solutions that give users capacity on-demand from a pool of computing resources. It should deliver scalability and flexibility, and offer self-provisioning and management. And you should only have to pay for what you use.

The Cloud Defined by NIST
Five essential characteristics of cloud computing:

  • On-demand self-service
  • Broad network access
  • Resource pooling
  • Rapid elasticity or expansion
  • Measured service

Three cloud service models:

  • Software
  • Platform
  • Infrastructure

Four cloud deployment models:

  • Private
  • Community
  • Public
  • Hybrid

The Cloud, Defined
Today's cloud offerings got their start with the advent of virtualization, in which a virtual hardware platform, operating system, storage device or network resource was used instead of an actual version of that product.

But virtualization alone is not the cloud. In Fall 2011, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) published an official definition (NIST Special Publication 800-145) of this relatively new business model in the computing world. NIST concluded that "cloud computing is a model for enabling ubiquitous, convenient, on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources (e.g., networks, servers, storage, applications and services) that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort or service provider interaction."

In essence, the cloud is an operational model that enables delivery of computing-as-a-service in a way that is flexible enough to meet your unique needs and use cases. Today cloud providers have developed innovative hosted offerings that meet this definition, but, in the process, are blurring the lines between virtual, physical and cloud environments.

The reason there is less of a distinction today is because technology has evolved in a way that enables cloud providers to rapidly deploy even dedicated physical infrastructure in a private cloud to deliver the benefits more commonly associated only with virtual solutions. The best cloud solution is one that allows you to select the compute and network platforms that best suit your applications, even when those may require a combination of virtual, physical and cloud solutions.

Finding the Right Combination
If you want to leverage the benefits of the cloud, there are a number of factors you must consider when choosing a cloud services provider, including:

  • What kind of compute power is needed? If your organization requires significant compute power, such as for database applications, a purely virtual solution may not be your best choice. Because databases require a lot of access to the disk, going through a virtualization layer may hamper performance - sometimes by between 15 percent and 30 percent depending on the application. In this case, by seeking a cloud provider that offers dedicated servers, you can ensure that your applications run properly while minimizing the management and hosting required in-house.
  • How quickly do you need solutions deployed in the cloud? One of the hallmarks of virtualization is the ability to add servers or increase capacity in a matter of minutes as needed. But is the ability to turn something up that quickly an absolute requirement for your organization? Today cloud service providers have automated their processes so that even hosted physical infrastructure or private cloud solutions can be deployed in a matter of hours. Such a quick turnaround is still much faster than would be possible if your IT team had to do it themselves.
  • How much will it cost? - Is your compute demand random, spiky or transitory? For most organizations, that isn't the case because workloads often remain steady with occasional spikes. If this describes your workload, you may want to consider finding a cloud provider that offers both monthly and hourly pricing. By selecting one that only offers hourly pricing, you may be paying an unnecessary premium for your baseline infrastructure needs. However, by having the option to go month-to-month, you may find that cloud solutions cost less over time.

As technology advances and the line between virtual, physical and the cloud will continue to blur. But those changes should not diminish the advantages you can expect to achieve by moving infrastructure, applications and services to a cloud provider. By considering these questions, and gaining a clear understanding of the capabilities and pricing structure of cloud providers, you should be able to achieve the full promise of the cloud: fast provisioning, scalability, ease of deployment and management with a low-cost solution.

More Stories By Nathan Day

As Chief Scientist at SoftLayer, Nathan Day is responsible for the design, creation, and implementation of the proprietary SoftLayer Infrastructure Management System (IMS). Prior to SoftLayer, he served as Vice President of Development at The Planet where he oversaw the back-end management system. Prior to joining The Planet, he held the position as Senior Application Developer at His employment history includes positions with Texas Instruments, MCI WorldCom, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He brings extensive experience in product and software development. His skill set includes PHP, Cold Fusion, Perl, HTML, XML, C, C++, and Python. Mr. Day earned a Bachelor of Science in Aerospace Engineering and a Master of Science degree in Aerospace Engineering from Texas A&M University.

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