Is there really a market for entry-level cloud solutions?

“IBM SmartCloud Entry delivered by IBM Starter Kit for Cloud”

No time to set up SKC yourself? Simply watch this short video - should be worth your time!

Let me rewind … many, many years ago I was sent some test code for a very basic web interface allowing self-service requests for virtual machines, developed by a single VMware employee in his spare time; looking back, this was the first time I actually “did cloud.” And I liked it because it was exactly what I wanted at the time – a simple way to enable, control, and streamline resource requests.

With marketing engines blazing today, we seem to have forgotten what drove these initial efforts, and often it feels that vendor capabilities drive our (perceived) cloud requirements rather than the other way around (as it should be). It seems that everyone today is brainwashed into thinking they are a public cloud service provider (and I understand that some IT departments indeed become some sort of “service providers” for internal divisions, but typically with totally different security requirements).

“With marketing engines blazing, it seems that everyone today is brainwashed into thinking they are a public cloud service provider.”

So it’s not surprising that security concerns, compliance, and business process integration challenges often spring to mind first when listing cloud adoption inhibitors.
However, on a more practical level, from my experience for many smaller private cloud projects the upfront implementation effort with the associated costcomplexity, and lack of in-house skills are the first (and still often final) hurdle.

study covered in August 2011 (provided by TheInfoPro, a division of The 451 Group) underlines this pattern.

And yes, this doesn’t come as surprise, the first time we installed vCloud Director last year, it took us the best part of four days – a far cry from the ”click next,” “next,” “next, next” experience many became so used to with for example, vCenter (and don’t get me wrong – vCloud Director has a great UI and this is by no means a “VMware only” issue).

So why is it that even vendors such as VMware, who are known for intuitive management UIs, struggle to deliver a simple “end-user” installable cloud management suite?

To a certain extent, it’s the nature of the beast … a full multi-tenant cloud management stack is vastly more complex because it touches and incorporates not only layers of the classical server infrastructure but the extended network, security, and, more important, the interfacing business support systems. When combined with the inherent requirement for system-wide orchestration and extensibility through comprehensive APIs for each individual customer environment, clearly, by its very nature, it will not be “simple main-stream” for some time.
Efforts such as VMware’s vCloud Director appliance (for evaluation purposes) show that this is a recognized problem.

So, although there is no easy short-term solution, the question you should ask is whether your environment always really needs all the bells and whistles of “a full-blown” cloud management stack – and I’m by no means implying that the answer will always be “no.”

“The question you should ask is whether YOUR environment really needs all the bells and whistles of ‘a full-blown’ cloud management stack?”

So, you might argue, nothing new here – one needs to understand the specific functional and operational requirements of the environment and translate that into one’s custom solution – that’s what we (architects) do right?

Well, unfortunately today’s reality is that your are likely to be presented with a “one-fit-all” approach by most vendors when it comes to “your” cloud solution – it’s typically “take that or nothing” – unless I’ve just missed, for example, the vCloud Director “light” version? ;)

What is IBM Starter Kit for Cloud (SKC)?

When we showed off “IBM SmartCloud Entry delivered by IBM Starter Kit for Cloud” at VMworld 2011, I was seriously taken by surprise by how much interest it generated but retrospectively it clearly makes sense.

OK, so what is the IBM Starter Kit for Cloud? In a simplified way it is a browser-based orchestration layer that is installed on your existing virtualization environment to provide cloud-like functionality. Take for instance your existing vSphere infrastructure, install SKC, and point it to your vCenter server. It will automatically surface your existing vSphere workloads and templates and add extended self-service portal functionality.

“Take your existing vSphere infrastructure, install SKC, and point it to your vCenter server. It will automatically surface your existing vSphere workloads and templates and add extended self service portal functionality.”

So what’s good about it? (And I am conscious of the fact that I’m an IBM employee covering an IBM product so please bear with me before shouting “fix.”)

  • It has an extremely intuitive user interface.
    Yes, I can hear some of you – “An intuitive user interface from IBM??” I am probably the first to admit that our UIs can sometimes be intimidating to the novice user but if you are familiar with, for example, the IBM Storwize interface (http://youtu.be/aHC5X_-gzw0), you know that great attention is being paid internally to user experience, and the SKC UI clearly reflects that.
  • It installs in minutes.
    Now, I really mean that. I have put together a short “Our Angry Boss Wants a Cloud” video that captured the entire installation process in our lab environment. It also gives you an overview of the interface and overall functionality. If you have a few minutes, have a look. And yes – humor is intended, but keep in mind that I’m German ;)
  • It provides the core functionality for private cloud portals.
    It provides a web-based self-service user portal, project-based workload entitlement, request and approval management with email notifications, and basic metering and billing for the deployed workloads.
  • It provides multi-virtualization vendor support.
    OK, so today it only “cloudifies” VMware vSphere and IBM System p UNIX systems (separate editions), but given IBM’s publicly stated policy of open choice, it would seem logical that SKC would be extended to support other x86 hypervisors from a single SKC instance in the future. (I am not making any official forward-looking statements but think of, for example, KVM as an additional virtualization platform.)
  • It has an attractive price point and is easily extensible.
    SKC is priced per server (so independent of the number of virtual machines!) and can be purchased for under $2000 with a one-year subscription and support (S&S). SKC has a documented REST API that allows for integration and customization of SKC in your environment.

As always I’ll be straight on this blog entry (even if I talk about one of “our” products).

So what is SKC (not)… ?

It is what it says on the box, an entry cloud solution; for example, it is not intended to be a fully fledged multi-tenant cloud solution for service providers – IBM has other products in the portfolio addressing this space – see our Cloud Service Provider (CSP2) offering or our IBM SmartCloud Portfolio.

“SKC is not intended to be a full multi-tenant public cloud solution for Service Providers – there are other products in IBM’s portfolio to address this space.”

To give you an example, although you can create virtual networks in SKC, it does not have secure network isolation in the way that vShield with VMware vCD. And, if you look for all the advanced functions that IBM Service Delivery Manager  or VMware’s vCloud Director and (fee-based) extensions can provide, then don’t be disappointed not to find them all in SKC. Also be aware that the currently supported vSphere version is 4.1 (with support for v5) is coming early next year.

I really do like SKC for what it is (otherwise I wouldn’t cover it here) – so if the core of what you need is delegation of resource provisioningcontrol virtual machine (VM) sprawl through request and approval management, basic metering and billing, and you feel that other offerings are too complex, too costly and simply overkill for what you need, then I can only suggest to evaluate SKC (see details and contact information).

SKC is by no means the “one-fits-all” answer to all of our cloud scenario  it is simply another option in your architectural toolbox determining whether it fits your needs will be required. If it does fit, I believe it can simplify your job greatly and give you quick time-to-value on your journey to the white fluffy thing.

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Andreas Groth

About Andreas Groth

Andreas Groth is a WW IBM virtualization and cloud community lead and x86 virtualization architect for IBM's System and Technology Group in Europe. He is a passionate blogger and creator of virtualizationmatrix.com. Follow him on twitter @AndreasGroth.
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