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Cloud computing: A difficult call for Indian organizations?

Aishwarya Ramani, Contributor

Sanjay Kharb, associate vice president of technology for MakeMyTrip India Pvt Ltd., is confident about his travel portal's IT infrastructure. Sudden increases in customer log-ins to his website don't seem to faze him, since he trusts the capabilities of his cloud computing implementation to come to his aid. But when it comes to Indian IT leaders and their understanding of cloud computing, Kharb is a member of the minority.

Vendors now use well-packaged solutions under the cloud computing tag to lure the Indian CIO. But not all CIOs are ready to purchase these technologies. As far as the potential of the cloud, a great deal of skepticism and doubt persists -- particularly when it comes to a standard definition for cloud computing.

How to define the term is confusing -- even among IT vendors. "There is no standard industry definition for cloud computing," declares Moorthy Uppaluri, Microsoft India's general manager for developer and platform evangelism.

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Private vs. public clouds
The cloud has two aspects: the public cloud and the private cloud.SearchCloudComputing.com defines private cloud as a term for a proprietary computing architecture that provides hosted services to a limited number of users behind a firewall.
A public cloud is defined as one based on the standard cloud computing model, in which a service provider makes resources, such as applications and storage, available to the general public over the Internet. Public cloud services may be free or offered on a pay-per-usage model.

According to Microsoft's definition, cloud computing is a technology model that provides organizational abilities to access software and hardware resources from a virtual space. IBM calls it an emerging consumption and delivery model for services. These delivery models can take the form of Infrastructure as a Service, Middleware as a Service, and Software as a Service.

Essentially, cloud computing attempts to integrate software, infrastructure and applications as services and to take virtualization to the next level by enabling dynamic scaling up or down of resources, which are allocated depending on usage.

Fear, uncertainty … and optimism

Today, CIOs are curious about what makes cloud computing stand out. Most organizations have stuck to the old rulebook with hardware and software deployments that are best suited for their organizations. So why spend more on new IT initiatives when everything's already in-house?

With this concern in mind, Kharb suggests exploring cloud computing as an upgrade. With the public cloud, CIOs can host applications remotely and allow users to log in through a website (with a username and password). A virtual private cloud can be a cluster of existing resources. "If a CIO has spent heavily on his existing infrastructure, it is recommended to opt for the private cloud," Kharb suggests. MakeMyTrip has a public cloud in place that is hosted by Rackspace and a private cloud from Netmagic Solutions to manage its Web interface and the resultant traffic (from the Web interface).

On the infrastructure front, the major advantage of cloud computing offerings is that they enable on-the-fly scale up of resources. Ritu Pandey, the IT manager of Indian School Finance Company (ISFC), has experimented with the cloud. Depending on ISFC's needs, Salesforce.com's cloud computing solution enables Pandey to dynamically allocate additional resources. Similarly, startups can also consider the advantages that cloud computing may bring in to set up their infrastructure.

While Kharb's perspective has merit, the general CIO perception about cloud computing is confined to the public cloud. "Though the cloud computing aspect looks attractive in theory, one should wait and watch -- see how it will be adopted en masse and the new challenges that it will pose. It might still be the case to host core applications in the traditional way," says Ajay M Patil, the vice president of IT at Bharti AXALife. Because of this public cloud perspective, the fear is that cloud computing may lead to information security compromises. "Security is the biggest concern. Barring core applications, other productivity applications such as CRM and email can take advantage of this technology," Patil adds.

When an application is hosted in an environment beyond a CIO's control, worry is natural. But Indian IT leaders like Kharb believe there is nothing to worry about: A secure application built using sound coding practices and right application firewalls should work. According to these optimistic CIOs, the onus is on the application development community to build the right kind of application which effectively uses the cloud computing concept.

Dr. Nataraj Nagaratnam, the chief technology officer of IBM India Software Labs, notes that like any emerging paradigm, cloud computing has challenges concerning interoperability across different clouds that require standardization. "[The] ability to manage heterogeneous server and client environments should be addressed in a seamless way so that services are interconnected and available where and when they are needed," says Nagaratnam.

"Cloud platforms encourage the developer community to innovate and ideate on an open platform, which is free for all to develop new business applications," says Microsoft's Uppaluri. Since developers have the flexibility, CIOs will have to ensure application security levels and cross-platform interoperability in order to leverage the cloud.

OK, but…

In addition to security concerns, CIOs have to deal with staff education. "We faced major challenges when it came to educating staff about the benefits of online data input and approvals. Initially we faced resistance, but now it's been adopted throughout the company. We also plan to implement approval process for our branch offices," says Pandey.

Service uptime is another concern for CIOs. While Patil is not too sure of the maintenance contracts provided by vendors, Pandey says they have not signed an agreement with Salesforce.com. But Salesforce.com offers 99.9% uptime for its services, and Microsoft assures uptimes of 99.95%. Kharb does not dispute these numbers and says that most vendors do provide 99.9% uptime.