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Cloudy Semantics

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I recently attended a seminar on cloud music services at the 2011 NARM convention. It was a spirited roundtable discussion including representatives from many major digital music services and service providers, ably facilitated by the ever articulate Ted Cohen. What struck me most about this discussion was the conflation of the subject matter, cloud music service software models with cloud infrastructure and platform services in general. The recent high-profile cloud music service announcements by Google and Amazon, companies who also offer cloud infrastructure/platform services no doubt aided this category mistake. Given the apparent confusion of many of my colleagues, I thought I’d provide some clarification of cloud terminology (and at the same time reveal my own view of the evolving cloud marketplace).

Although Google and Amazon are recent entrants (and rumor has it Apple is not far behind), cloud music services and the cloud software service model is not something new, and Google and Amazon’s music offerings in this area are not somehow predicated on inroads these companies have made in cloud computing or on the advent of cloud infrastructure or platform services in general. Consider that the International Data Corporation (IDC) defines cloud services as:

“Consumer and business products, services and solutions delivered and consumed in real-time over the Internet”

It’s not hard to think of examples of music services that go back nearly a decade that fit this description. In the last ten years I’ve come into contact with countless companies aspiring to develop ‘play anything, anywhere’ music subscription and pay for download models at least as ambitious as Google and Amazon’s recent offerings. Michael Robertson’s my.mp3.com, Rod Lord’s Mediacode, Rhapsody’s early subscription music service and moontaxi.com (my alma mater) were all developed using traditional platform and server infrastructure models.

Currently, cloud services in the Internet domain fall into three loose categories:

Software as a Service (SaaS): These are software application services that perform a specific business function consumed on a utility model. Client access is typically through a thin client or web browser based interface. Services can be accessed through a variety of web enabled devices including workstations and mobile devices. The complexities of the underlying platform and infrastructure technologies are invisible to the client and are the responsibility of the SaaS provider to manage. Platform and infrastructure systems may themselves be supported by cloud technologies and services, but are commonly based on traditional operating system and server infrastructure topologies. Google and Amazon’s recent cloud music services fall into this SaaS category as do an array of their digital music service predecessors not to mention countless other long established services in other verticals (for example Hotmail, Basecamp, Salesforce or Facebook).

Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS): Specifically server processing, file storage, IP networks, and other fundamental computing resources provided on a utility model. Managed service providers have been leveraging technologies like server virtualization, storage area networks and intelligent network traffic shaping devices to provide cost optimization and configuration flexibility for some time. In recent years some providers have developed an abstraction layer using web service APIs or browser based management consoles that provide on demand and scalable access to these resources. Notable examples of such implementations are Amazon’s Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) and Simple Storage Service (S3) which presumably grew out of Amazon’s desire to monetize and evolve the huge latent capacity of the considerable server infrastructure they maintain to accommodate usage spikes for their own massively trafficked end user facing service www.amazon.com.

Platform as a Service (PaaS): This is a relatively new development. PaaS providers enable the deployment of client developed application code and associated configuration to an application hosting environment where the details of the platform environment are abstracted or invisible to the client. The goal is to provide on demand scalability of the runtime environment in which the client’s application and associated data schema is deployed. Google, Amazon and Microsoft all have competing products in rapid evolution in this vertical.

These cloud service categories and how they interrelate is well illustrated by the following diagram (thank you to Kate Craig-Wood for providing):

cloud service types and interaction

Cloud music services like those recently launched by Google and Amazon appropriately fall squarely into the SaaS category as they provide specific software functionality that is consumed on-demand through a variety of devices, and because their client-server architecture provides continuity across multiple access points. There is no significant aspect of either of these services that exhibit characteristics of (or necessitate employment of) IaaS or PaaS services. In the case of Amazon’s service they are undoubtedly leveraging cloud technologies for some aspects of the supporting infrastructure and platform layers, but this is really irrelevant to any discussion of the capabilities and market impact of their SaaS music offering.

Further, I’d argue that in the context of Amazon’s music service, since they are leveraging their own internal system capabilities and expertise, they are not really using PaaS or IaaS for their own provisioning environment. Perhaps this is merely a philosophical point, but one thing is certain, none of the recent widely publicized outages of Amazon’s cloud infrastructure service appeared to impact Amazon’s music service or any of their other consumer facing services (others like indabamusic.com and reddit.com were not so lucky). This suggests that for Amazon's own end user services they are leveraging at least a mix of cloud and traditional solutions. Who can blame them? Outages aside, there are a number of other issues associated with systems entirely deployed on PaaS and IaaS service models related to things like security, auditing, SLA conformance, and IP protection. Amazon is making excellent money selling off their latent capacity through a cloud provisioning model, and some of their business units, where appropriate, utilize their own cloud services but others don’t and shouldn’t.

What I’m trying to get across is that software service models with the characteristics of SaaS have existed long prior to the advent cloud system provisioning models (PaaS and IaaS), and that these SaaS service models don’t really need PaaS and IaaS. I'm not suggesting that the development of cloud provisioning models isn't an important and a relevant consideration for CIOs at companies with SaaS offerings (or indeed for any CIO). In today’s rapidly changing business environment, where agility is key to success and even survival, consumption of outsourced and utility services that provide true elasticity in scalability and overhead is highly desirable. Businesses whose IT strategies ignore or discount the cloud do so at their peril, but keep in mind that PaaS and IaaS services are truly in their infancy, and there are many established provisioning models (for example managed server infrastructure outsourcing, SPLA software licensing, private cloud virtualization, etc) which (properly implemented) provide the same value without the same risks.

If you’re a CIO or IT manager, I’d suggest taking a verse from Amazon song sheet: the best IT strategy for your business is one formulated through a firm grasp of the fundamental technologies and how they can best be combined and leveraged for maximum benefit, and not through a poorly conceived headlong rush into the clouds.

music.google.com
www.amazon.com/cloudplayer

Ponemon Cloud Providers Security: A Challenge and an Opportunity (securecloudreview.com)
Amazon Cloud Goes Down, Takes Every Hot Startup With It (www.businessinsider.com)
Amazon Enters PaaS with Beanstalk (www.infoq.com)
Defining “Cloud Services” – an IDC update (idc.com)

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