Controlling the skies: The rise and role of the cloud service broker

It took a while, but industry watchers can finally say the enterprise has reached a stage where the adoption of cloud has taken off, with most now favouring a hybrid model that allows them to keep critical information on-premise.

But the story doesn’t end there. Whilst this model seemingly offers CIOs the best of both worlds by outsourcing much of the IT burden and maintaining security, adopters have found themselves faced with a new job: cloud service broker (CSB).

The CSB takes on the task of managing the composition of the hybrid cloud, which can vary largely according to the wants and needs of each organisation. This role, which handles aggregation, integration and customisation of services, will become even more relevant as hybrid models become more dynamic.

“We’re going to see an evolution over time with hybrid cloud computing where it will evolve into something different than originally defined,” says Gary Alterson, director of risk and advisory services at Neohapsis. “Cloud providers will continue to enhance security and performance, and the large providers like AWS will keep putting downward pressure on prices.”

Back to the drawing board

This transition is likely to result in the more forward-thinking organisations rethinking their strategies and the benefits of hybrid cloud.

They will begin to think in terms of hybrids where they weave together a set of disparate services from different providers in order to achieve the right balance of security, compliance, SLAs, performance and price on a service-by-service basis.

“The really in-front thinkers will start to evolve towards a strategy where workload and data is considered portable,” Alterson says. “They’ll begin to think about how they can dynamically move applications and data around based on shifting requirements and maximising cost arbitrage.”

As this happens, the increased degree of clarity around the hybrid model will see the broker role evolve and become vital to the operations of the IT team.

The tension within IT on moving to the cloud will resolve as organisations recognise that a hybrid cloud model is needed to service their application portfolio, says Jay Kidd, CTO at NetApp.

He adds that CIOs will sort their application portfolio into those they must control entirely (in on-premise private clouds), partially (in enterprise public clouds), as well as workloads that are more transient (public hyperscalar clouds), and those best purchased as software-as-a-service (SaaS).

“IT will act as brokers across these diverse cloud models,” he says. “This will also uncover the need to easily move application data between clouds and to provision consistent storage service capabilities across different cloud models.”

>See also: Cloud brings application integration out of the shadows

And it’s not just large enterprises that will witness this development. SMBs, which to date have largely had to choose between an all-cloud approach of traditional IT, are also looking to join the party.

Unlike large enterprises, they weren’t offered the option of mixing the two, leaving hybrid cloud to become synonymous with the former.

“We see this changing and 2014 will be an important year,” says Nick East, CEO of Zynstra. “99% of businesses in the UK are classed as SMBs, meaning there is a huge and untapped market for hybrid cloud computing.

“Smaller businesses are crying out for a solution that offers a more affordable, reliable, secure and flexible way of procuring IT. As hybrid increasingly becomes the standard for cloud deployments in the enterprise, demand will grow from SMBs who want to get the benefits of a hybrid solution that is fit for purpose.”

Tooling up

With than in mind, the CSB role has significant scope to sweep through businesses across the world.

Through the growth of hybrid cloud, organisations’ cloud ecosystems are becoming more diverse, which in turn means they require greater management.

However, this is a big task and needs qualified people with a specialist skill set.

“Organisations can have their own internal staff manage these ecosystems, but they often lack the combined technical and commercial skills to broker these services,” says Kalyan Kumar, chief technology architect at HCL Technologies

“As such, we are seeing this responsibility being fulfilled by an outsourced cloud service broker, who has the relationships and insight to provide a cost-effective and cutting-edge value proposition.”

Furthermore, as CIOs move to managing a portfolio of cloud services, they will look at their internal IT as one more service option.

All IT owned by a company will be considered private cloud, says Kidd, and expectations of responsiveness to the business, cost competitiveness and SLAs will be compared to external cloud options.

>See also: Accenture’s “cloud broker” bid

Managing the cloud

As the trend continues to develop, the CSB, whether an internal role or external service, will essentially maintain and manage a portfolio of services on the enterprise’s behalf.

Each service will have different characteristics in terms of price, security, performance and functionality, and the broker will ensure business applications take advantage of the right mix of services based on requirements.

They’ll also have a role in terms of monitoring and overseeing provider performance, monitoring the services they are brokering, and helping to manage them.

“They’ll make minute-by-minute decisions on which cloud services an enterprise should use for each business purpose based on requirement specifications,” says Alterson. “And if those requirements change, or a cloud provider can’t meet them, they’ll move workload and data around. 

“In essence, they’ll be more like air traffic controllers than insurance brokers.”

But until all this happens, CIOs must do what they can to ensure future integration and interoperability is possible.

As a result, amongst the key CIO priorities in 2014 will be cloud assessment, migration, governance, service management, security and assurance, which are mature areas in a traditional IT framework but need to be modified for the cloud.

“To make this change as seamless as possible,” Kumar says, “it is vital that CIOs involve staff with existing skill sets on current platforms so that they can assess, identify gaps and help with migration and implementation.”

It’s also imperative for CIOs to understand clearly their organisation’s requirements and strategy in order for them to translate this into a future state architecture and roadmap for IT, adds Andrew Long, cloud expert at Accenture.

“The latter may include areas where hybrid is the right solution,” he says, “and the investments being made need to align to this, including setting up clear standards and governance to make future interoperability possible.”

>See also: Who will be the cloud brokers?

Drafting for the future

CIOs will also be wary in designing the right private cloud with this hybrid and CSB future in mind.

For transient hybrid solutions, alignment of the different environments is key. The private cloud environment needs to be suitably similar to a potential public environment so the solution workload can be transferred as simply as possible.

“Any differences need to be understood and designed for,” Long says. “You need to have a good idea of what the public environment will be, whether your current solutions require it or not.

“For permanent hybrid solutions the design is inherently hybrid from day one for private cloud services.”

The greatest challenge of cloud remains the inability of enterprises to put an accurate price on the provision of their IT services in-house.

Too often the TCO of a data centre, and the services it houses, is based on guesswork. The decision to use a public cloud service nearly always comes down to lowering costs, but without knowing these exact in-house costs, how can an enterprise be sure that the public cloud is the best option?

“When designing their initial private cloud services, enterprises need to know the precise cost of providing them, as well as what the effect would be if a service was removed from in-house infrastructure, essentially leaving empty space that must either be re-used or end up being a waste of resources,” says Liam Newcombe, CTO of Romonet, a leading industry contributor to the European Commission’s European Code of Conduct for Data Centers, and the first chair of the its Data Center Best Practice Working Group.

“With this information, enterprises can then confidently compare the cost of potentially moving to a public cloud service with the savings it will grant in-house, if any.”

This should result in a hybrid cloud strategy that ensures services are only placed in the public cloud when it is in the organisation’s best financial interests.

Evidently, there is still much to do in defining and executive a hybrid cloud strategy. Until then, IT teams should begin prepping their broker and traffic control skills.

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...