Should You Mix Cloud Services or Go All-in-One?

As cloud computing grows ever more popular, many vendors are taking an own-the-stack approach to delivering cloud services to customers. It’s a race to see which vendors, if any, will dominate the sector first. The question for your company is, do you use a single- or multi-vendor approach to the cloud?

Let’s talk about this whole stack idea. Take your average server, and metaphorically cut it open to view the layers within. At the most basic level, you have the operating system and application layers. But as we all know, there are layers within layers: The operating system handles administration, resource management, networking… all the things applications need to run and communicate with the outside world.

Taken together as a collection, all of these layers represent a stack. Servers can themselves be components of a larger stack within a data center, with application, database, networking and storage systems as layers.

And then there’s the cloud, the on-demand accessible pool of computing resources that uses automated and rapid provisioning to deliver what end users need. “Cloud” is often confused with data center, but the presence of automated and low-maintenance management is the key difference.

Cloud Means Everything as a Service

Like any other IT offering, cloud computing can be expressed as a stack as well, though usually with just three layers:

  • Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS). The “bottom” layer of the cloud is comprised of the basic core materials: the hardware, operating systems, network devices and storage.
  • Platform as a Service (PaaS). The “middle” layer of the cloud that acts to provide a platform on which cloud applications run. Sometimes referred to as the “OS” of the cloud, though the individual operating systems live in the IaaS layer.
  • Software as a Service (SaaS). The “top” layer of the cloud is the actual software delivered to the end user over the network.

There are a lot of vendors who play in one or two of these layers. Amazon Web Services and Rackspace, for instance, provide offerings for the IaaS layer. Google App Engine, RightScale, and Microsoft Azure are good examples of PaaS vendors, and besides Google’s stable of apps, is a classic example of SaaS in action.

For most of these vendors, the flexibility and choices of what they can work with to deliver an end-to-end solution mean that they can usually tailor a deployment to meet customer requirements. The customer wants a hybrid cloud running a CRM software? How about AWS, managed by RightScale, all running Saleforce? Or some other combo that makes sense technically and fiscally.

But there are some vendors that see the best approach to the cloud is to own the entire stack, so they can deliver and manage the whole thing for customers. The appeal is understandable: by not partnering with anyone (except perhaps SaaS partners, because the huge diversity of SaaS offerings prevents any one vendor from having them all), a vendor can avoid changes in licensing and business arrangements, and — let’s face it — keep all the revenue for themselves.

Cisco, for one, has been a big proponent of this idea. It obviously has the network part of the stack covered, and their Internetwork Operating System (IOS), handles the operating system duties quite well. Hardware is covered, too, which really just leaves the PaaS layer. Their Application Extension Platform (AXP) is their effort to introduce PaaS-like features into their cloud offering.

HP and IBM each have similar approaches to the cloud as well, and there are clear signs that Dell wants in on the cloud stack game, too (including some speculation that Dell should just up and buy Cisco.) Until Dell can get a solid network offering in their cloud kit, though, don’t expect much from them in this area.

Which Cloud Service Approach Is Best?

As a customer, which approach would work for you: all-in-one or mixed stack? Like most things IT, it really comes down to how many in-house resources you want to devote to managing the final solution. All-in-one offerings from Cisco, HP, and IBM can deliver nearly turn-key private and hybrid cloud solutions at a fairly well-defined pricing structure. Their service is more encompassing, too, which is only right since they own the whole stack.

But like any other single-vendor solution, you could find yourself with a less-than-flexible solution should your needs change. With cloud, this shouldn’t be a big deal technologically, since the very definition of cloud includes “on-demand.” But you might find yourself looking at less attractive use costs if things change too much.

Mixed cloud solutions may be a better way to go for you if you have a good batch of in-house expertise that understands clouds and provisioning and don’t mind getting their hands dirty once in a while. It would not be a huge effort — automation is also at the heart of a cloud — but they would have to know how to operate the cloud correctly.

Using different vendors at each cloud layer would afford your company maximum flexibility and scalability, though you would need to make sure all these vendors worked well with each other. The cloud is still a pretty small community, relatively speaking, so everyone usually knows everyone else and incompatibilities are not common. You will be able to price things as you ultimately want, but billing may be a bit convoluted. Support might be patchwork, too, but again, a lot of these vendors have partnership arrangements with each other that can usually smooth support and billing issues.

Ultimately, the small amount of extra hassle may be worth it. The nice thing about all of the different layers is that there are a lot of different combinations your company can use and less chance of getting locked-in by a single vendor. But it’s a really subtle difference at this stage, as everyone is still approaching cloud with flexibility in mind.

That is, after all, the whole point of using the cloud, which even all-in-one vendors still understand.

Brian Proffitt is a technology expert who writes for a number of publications. Formerly the Community Manager for and the Linux Foundation, he is the author of 20 consumer technology books, including the most recent Take Your iPad to Work. Follow him on Twitter at @TheTechScribe.

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