Sun Microsystems is laying the groundwork for its participation in the building of computing clouds, but is not yet ready to talk about its plans for running its own clouds.
Dave Douglas, senior vice president of Sun's Cloud Computing Business Unit, said Tuesday that his company has hundreds of employees working on cloud computing and is spending a lot of time with enterprise customers, services customers and partners on developing the infrastructure they need to take advantage of cloud computing.
The first problem, however, is defining just what cloud computing is, Douglas said. "Everyone grapples with a definition of what clouds are," he said.
Sun's definition of cloud computing contains a number of attributes, Douglas said.
The first is that it is a "one service fits all" architecture. Cloud computing infrastructures have to be built with multiple customers in mind, he said. "It's the utility concept," he said. "When you go to the power company, you can't specify what voltage or frequency you want."
Cloud computing also requires the ability to virtualize resources that are shared between multiple customers, yet each customer gets its own view of the resources it uses, he said.
It also requires self-provisioning of resources, as well as the kind of elasticity that allows those resources to be easily scaled up or down. Customers will want to access those resources on a pay-for-use basis, and want them controlled by the application and not by people involved in the infrastructure, he said.
There are three primary ways to differentiate computing clouds, Douglas said. The first is by compute layers involved. The first layer is infrastructure as a service, or bare-bones computing, such as Amazon Web Services or Rackspace's Mosso services. The second is platform as a service, which provides an abstract view of resources mainly for developers. The third is software as a service, with on-demand applications such as those from salesforce.com or the iTunes Store, he said.
Sun's Network.com, which has been running a few years, is similar to both the infrastructure as a service and platform-as-a-service layers, Douglas said. However, he said, "We still have a lot of customers using it, but it's not an active development focus for us."
Computing clouds can also be differentiated by whether it is a public or a private cloud, Douglas said.
With a public cloud, multiple customers share the resources on a pay-as-you-go basis, but some customers are concerned about the amount of control they have over the resources, while on an internal private cloud, customers run their own software and have complete control over resources.
Going forward, Douglas said he expects customers to move to a hybrid model where they use both public and private clouds -- as an example, a customer who might have an internal storage cloud for primary and secondary data, which then encrypts the data before backing it up to a public cloud. "This lets customers use the efficiencies of public clouds," he said.
Compute clouds also differ from each other in terms of the software and hardware needed because of the specific requirements for the infrastructures, Douglas said. For instance, a compute cloud built for Web services has different architectures from one built for high-performance computing, which differs from one built for medical services, and so on, he said.
Sun is developing hardware and software that will serve as the platforms on which many different clouds are built, including public and private clouds, Douglas said. "However, we believe they will become hybrid over time," he said.
Sun also expects clouds to be open and compatible via APIs and other technologies that allow someone working on one cloud to be able to easily go to another. For instance, he said, a company might use a cloud in the U.S. and then want to replicate it for its business unit in China.
To help clients build their cloud computing infrastructures, Sun is offering expertise and services in areas such as virtualization to complement its products and technology, Douglas said.
The company is also looking at how to partner in building compute clouds with ISVs, professional services providers, and start-ups, which often start out as customers but later become partners as they look to build out their own cloud computing infrastructures, Douglas said.
While Sun was talking about cloud computing, it was less specific about its own plans.
"There are no big announcements today," Douglas said. "But I think you are going to see a slew of products coming out after the New Year."
When asked about whether Sun's StarOffice or OpenOffice would be offered as a service, Douglas said Sun feels a huge affinity with having those applications on the cloud, but he declined to give details. "We feel this is an area ripe with possibilities," he said.
Lew Tucker, CTO of Sun's Cloud Computing Business Unit, said that the company is just at the beginning of efforts to develop a channel for its cloud computing business.
However, Tucker said, there are service providers and others already helping customers take advantage of cloud computing, such as those who work with services from Amazon. "I don't think there has to be a one-to-one relationship between cloud providers and customers," he said.
It is important for a company like Sun to work with others on developing compute clouds regardless of what technology is used, Tucker said. "There are clouds out there with very little Sun content," he said. "But we will be excited to make all these clouds compatible."
For small and midsize businesses, Sun expects network service providers, especially telecom providers, to play a big role in cloud computing, Douglas said. Sun has traditionally had a big part of the IT infrastructure used by telecom companies in their network buildouts. "We are exploring how to go to market with them together," he said.
Partnerships also help a company like Sun build cloud computing infrastructures by providing the parts that Sun does not offer, Douglas said.
For instance, service level agreements, or SLAs, vary according to the type of cloud, where someone storing primary data based on a service from a company like Amazon might not be expecting a strong SLA, but another customer backing up critical data online would, he said.
And there are different types of clouds requiring different types of partners, Douglas said. For example, he cited a potential high-security compute cloud where Sun could provide the needed technology but work with a security services partner on the services.
In response to an analyst question about bandwidth restrictions on cloud computing, Douglas admitted there are constraints as bandwidth is not growing as quickly as customer data sets.
As a result, Sun expects less moving of data to the application and more moving of the application to where the data resides, Douglas said.
"Customers will increasingly drive the application to the data set, and not so much move the data sets around," he said.
As to Sun developing and running its own cloud computing infrastructures for customers, Douglas declined to discuss plans. "I didn't say it in the affirmative or the negative," he said. "But look for things to happen next year."