Looked at individually, cloud computing services are deceptively simple. For an hourly or monthly fee, the customer can access IT resources without the need to invest in or manage IT infrastructure.
However, managing, procuring and integrating multiple cloud services can be complex. The industry has yet to adopt universally agreed interoperability standards, the marketplace is crowded and diverse, and the ease with which cloud services can be procured places organisations at risk of ‘cloud sprawl’: undocumented, uncontrolled cloud procurement.
In 2009, analyst company Gartner coined the term ‘cloud services brokerage’ – often abbreviated to cloud broker – to describe an organisation that sits between cloud providers and their customers, offering services including integration, aggregation and customisation.
Since then, the topic of cloud brokers “has grown from a minor curiosity into a major point of interest for cloud providers and consumers alike”, Gartner research fellow Darryl Plummer wrote in December 2011.
“The issues of aggregating, integrating, customising, and governing cloud services have become serious ones for small, medium, and large enterprises who need help getting their cloud services to be the solutions they hope for.”
As a sign that the concept had come of age, Plummer pointed to the fact that the US government’s National Institute of Standards and Technology now has an official definition for the concept of a cloud broker: “an entity that manages the use, performance and delivery of cloud services, and negotiates relationships between cloud providers and cloud consumers”.
However, while the role may have been defined, albeit broadly, who will fill it remains on open question.
One organisation that feels the need for a cloud broker is Lifestyle Services Group. The UK company provides ‘white label’ services such as mobile phone insurance to the telecoms, financial services and banking industries.
In a bid to crack down on capital expenditure, it has been looking to adopt as many cloud-based IT systems as possible. “We went out to the market to look for email collaboration and office client software,” says Chris Airey, Lifestyle’s IT and change director, “but we were also looking at contact centres in the cloud and moving our data centres out to the cloud.”
Airey could have contracted with individual suppliers directly for each of these requirements, but instead he is looking for a cloud broker that can act as the prime contractor. “What I am trying to do with our core infrastructure is get to a single invoice,” he explains.
For Airey, the prime contractor must fulfil two principal tasks. Firstly, it needs to be able to run, and integrate, services across multiple cloud platforms, not just one. “Providers may talk a good game, but how many are willing to integrate other suppliers’ solutions?” he asks.
Secondly, it needs to be able to ensure that what is being sold as cloud lives up to the description. “It is interesting to see how many suppliers really are in the cloud,” comments Airey.
So far, Lifestyle Services Group has brought in an IT consultant to provide strategic advice and to help draft its request for proposal (RFP) documents for suppliers. But the plan is for a prime contractor to take over management of third-party services, including vendor selection and integration.
“Otherwise, I will have to keep those technical skills in-house,” Airey says. Another example of the need for cloud brokerage comes via IT management consultancy Accenture.
“An oil company discovered that various parts of the business were buying cloud without any governance from IT, partially due to frustrations in getting the IT they need from the IT department,” explains Andrew Greenway, who leads Accenture’s global cloud computing programme.
“By buying services in so many different places, they are gaining no buying advantage, and their information and data is being put outside the business without the necessary oversight.” Appointing a cloud broker would at least have allowed this company to benefit from the scale at which it was procuring cloud services.
Cloud brokers: the contenders
So who is going to fill the cloud broker role? That depends on the interpretation of the role. “There is a spectrum of services on offer,” says Alastair McAulay, an IT specialist at PA Consulting Group. “At one level it is advisory services, at another it is the automated provision of a range of services from cloud suppliers.”
IT service providers are gunning for the former opportunity, arguing that using cloud computing will require strategic consultancy and high-touch IT services.
“There is a role for a cloud adviser to help companies find the right positioning,” says Cliff Evans, a vice president for technology services at Capgemini. “There is a very wide range of cloud providers, so you do need an intelligent view of the market and of products and risks. Most businesses will need more than commoditised brokerage.”
Tim Marsden, director of applications and cloud enablement at Hewlett-Packard, sees the cloud broker role more as an aggregator of cloud services: “I would classify a cloud broker loosely as someone who aggregates cloud services into one place, and makes it easier for businesses to buy those services. There will be different levels of added value, depending on who the broker is.”
HP offers some cloud integration services itself, but Marsden sees this as an area that is of growing interest to telecoms and network vendors, who might already be selling lower- level services, such as hosting or online backup, to their customers. Adding, say, cloud-based applications would provide their customers with a more comprehensive technology ‘stack’.
Gartner, meanwhile, points to a raft of start-ups and independent technology providers offering components of the cloud brokerage concept.
Appirio, for example, is a US-based IT services company that specialises in cloud computing. Besides consultancy and professional services, Appirio offers what it calls its ‘cloud enablement suite’, an “integrated suite of tools, assets, analytics and crowdsourcing community to implement, manage and measure cloud initiatives.” This includes pre-built integrations between Salesforce.com and Google Mail.
Another US company, Jamcracker, sells technology that it claims allows service providers, resellers and end-user organisations themselves to become cloud brokers. Its platform includes functions required to wrap a selection of cloud services into a single integrated system, including a service catalogue, billing management and user provisioning. The company claims successful implementations at customers including Vodafone and IBM.
Boomi is a cloud integration provider that was acquired by Dell in 2011. Using that technology, Dell offers customers a pre- integrated suite of cloud applications for small businesses including Salesforce.com, QuickBooks and Microsoft’s Dynamics GP ERP application.
Unfortunately, this array of potential cloud brokers does little to reduce the complexity of buying cloud services. It seems that there are as many approaches to integrating and aggregating cloud computing offerings as there are offerings themselves.
So, as with cloud computing itself, cautious buyers are left to wait until the cloud broker market matures before a clear path ahead emerges. Braver organisations, though, have many options if they seek help in converting composite cloud computing services into viable business systems.