Cloud computing: What’s it all about?
March 31, 2016
Mark Silis
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Cloud computing illustration
Bigstock/Fernando Madeira

Embracing cloud services is the big trend in the IT industry. It’s a change similar to when we moved from mainframes to the client/server model (back in the 80s with Athena). Virtualization was another big inflection point that happened in the early to mid-2000s: the ability to run multiple operating systems on one physical machine. And now cloud computing is the newest wave in the IT industry.

The definition of cloud computing can be blurry, but at its most basic, it’s about storing and accessing software and data that don’t live on a local hard drive or in a local data center. Cloud computing provides a way to increase capacity or add functionality without expanding your local IT infrastructure.

The Cloud has many “flavors” or modes. Office 365 is one example. The Office 365 server lives in Microsoft’s data center. MIT interacts with Office 365 as an application user. We have some administrative access for creating users and things like that, but when it comes to taking care of the machines, the disk drives, the data center, that’s Microsoft’s job. We don’t know where their server is, except that it’s somewhere in the U.S.  It’s out there in the great blue yonder in the cloud.

IS&T’s private cloud

In IS&T, we’re trying to figure out how to embrace cloud computing and what it means for MIT. We’ve done a lot of work with VMware to develop our own private cloud for hosting the various systems and applications that we operate here. We’ve invested a lot in VMware’s software and virtualization stack for our environment, going back to 2005–2006.

Over the last year and a half, we’ve been working with VMware to figure out how to move our private cloud into their data center, to seamlessly migrate what’s running here on our computers to their data center. Basically, it’s about moving virtual machines between physical data centers.

The benefits for IS&T are clear. Data center operations  – taking care of hardware, disk drives, electrical systems, A/C – is not IS&T’s core business. Shifting that work to a company that has it as a core focus, 24/7, allows us to concentrate on more meaningful things.

When I was a student here, deploying servers was cool: you’d take one out of the box, build it, and install it. Now it’s been commoditized, the magic is gone. Someone takes a server out of the box, puts it in a rack, puts some virtualization software on it, and walks away.

This shift doesn’t change what our data center staff do: they still need to oversee computers in terms of the operating environment – systems and applications. That’s not going to change. It’s just a matter of where the physical hardware sits and who takes care of it. The goal is to help free up our staff to perform more useful tasks.

The cloud is also a plus from a disaster recovery standpoint. IS&T is not going to build a data center in California or Europe. So moving to the cloud gives us a better data recovery strategy than anything we could ever do on our own in metro Boston.

Our partnership with VMware

IS&T’s Cloud Platforms team, headed by Nathan Thaler, has done some incredible work with VMware over the last 18 months. Thaler has been finding and reporting issues to VMware and helping them design features, giving direct input into product development. Thaler tells them what does and doesn’t work: you’re talking about a major product that services millions of people. And VMware will say, “OK, we’ll get you a new version in two days.”  It’s part of the fun of working here, the opportunity to partner with folks in industry. Thaler and his director, David LaPorte, have done an impressive job building our relationship with VMware.

The biggest focus has been the networking aspect. Whether the server sits in VMware’s data centers or anyone else’s, from a network standpoint, we want it to look like it’s in our data center or on our network. Thaler and LaPorte have worked closely with VMware to provide what’s called software-defined networking (SDN) – the ability to extend the network we operate in our data center, connecting it to another site through software, and making it look like the machine sits right over here. Unless you’re measuring at the speed of light, in terms of how long it takes your packets or pings to get from A to B, you’d never know the difference.

IS&T has been asking its staff to learn new skills and explore new technologies. Thaler and LaPorte have embraced change in a big way, helping to find out how the IT industry is going to change in the process. That’s pretty cool.

Mark Silis is Associate Vice President of Information Systems and Technology.