Dec 01 2009

Creating Private Clouds

Among its many definitions, cloud computing lets organizations create their own utility-computing farms within their data infrastructure.

Call it the virtual cloud: Using virtualization software, government agencies, schools and private enterprises are building “private clouds” inside their own data centers to maximize efficiencies, ensure continuity and build a smooth path to the future.

Lew Smith, who manages the virtualization solutions practice for tech consulting firm Interphase Systems, says government agencies are looking at private clouds because commercial cloud vendors manufacturers don't quite meet their requirements, especially when it comes to availability and security. But organizations need to prepare for the day the public cloud will be ready for them, he adds. VMware designed vSphere with that change in mind.

“VMware put a lot of things into vSphere that make it consistent with what commercial cloud operators are offering,” says Smith. “That will make the transition easier when those agencies are ready to move into the public cloud.”

For more on virtualization and infrastructure optimization, check out the FedTech E-newsletter

Federal agencies have been reluctant to adopt cloud computing, in part because the Federal Information Security Management Act does not address issues such as security in the cloud, and most agencies have yet to develop policies and procedures around it, says Dave Amsler, founder of Foreground Security, which advises agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service, and the Homeland Security and Justice departments.

So until the federal government is ready for the public cloud — and vice versa — agencies are creating their own internal clouds using virtualization.

Marching Orders

One group leading the way is the Defense Information Systems Agency, which began a concerted effort in 2007 to virtualize server processing in its data centers and now has about a third of its applications running on virtual machines, says Alfred Rivera, director of computing services for the agency.

By converting physical servers into virtual ones, DISA has been able to shrink its hardware budget, reduce the number of physical data centers (and with that, the cost of supplying power and cooling), standardize on platforms across the enterprise, reduce labor costs and dramatically slash the amount time it takes to provision new services. 

“We are always in consolidation mode,” says Rivera, who oversees more than 6,000 physical servers in 13 data centers around the world. “In the past year, we’ve been able to close down five data centers. VMware is our primary virtualization technology.”

Rivera says his organization is currently testing vSphere. He hopes it will provide the performance boost needed to deliver more services via virtual machines. The agency’s goal is to have 50 percent of its apps running on virtual systems by the end of 2010.

Cloud computing by the numbers
$56.3 billion: commercial cloud computing market, 2009
$150.1 billion: projected commercial cloud computing market, 2013
43%: change in virtualization software market, 2008 to 2009
$2.7 billion: total virtualization software market in 2009
1 in 5: number of organizations using some type of virtualization in 2009

SOURCE: Gartner

Beyond the Clouds

Chris Kemp, CIO of NASA’s Ames Research Center, has an even loftier goal: to create a federal cloud that would give any agency access to massive computing power, whenever and wherever needed.

To that end, NASA created the Nebula project, an open-source cloud-computing platform housed inside a cargo container parked on the Ames campus. The aim of the pilot project is to build an efficient, low-cost cloud that could be loaded onto a truck and driven anywhere it’s needed.

“Our goal is to provide to the internal NASA R&D and engineering organizations a private cloud environment that will enable them to come up to speed on cloud computing much more quickly, without them having to spend taxpayer dollars unnecessarily on their own data-center infrastructure,” says Kemp. “With Nebula, we’re attempting to provide a service that’s flexible enough to provision dynamic infrastructure to meet the needs and requirements of our customers.”

Kemp says Nebula will be a test ground where NASA can figure out what works best in a cloud environment and then share that knowledge with other agencies.

At DISA, Rivera says a day doesn’t pass when they don’t talk about moving the agency's computing to the cloud — when it’s ready. He says virtualization is the path there.

“Virtualization is the foundation that will allow us to get to cloud computing,” says Rivera. “It will let us make the next leap forward.”