Posted by: Christian Verstraete | July 22, 2010

Community cloud, a way to integrate suppliers

Ac cloud computing takes centre stage not just in business, but also in government, it is interesting to note that in their definition of Cloud Computing, the National Institute of Standards and Technologies includes an interesting deployment model, called community cloud. They define it as the cloud infrastructure that is shared by several organizations and supports a specific community that has shared concerns (e.g., mission, security requirements, policy, and compliance considerations). It may be managed by the organizations or a third party and may exist on premise or off premise.

Over the years, companies have outsourced parts of their supply chain, making it increasingly difficult for them to maintain full control over what happens in the ecosystem. As I have described in a number of entries in the current blog, there exist ways to increase visibility and regain control. However, they require the development of a trustworthy relationship with partners and the development of a communication infrastructure capable of supporting the information transfer in a secure manner. Around the turn of the century, hubs seemed to be the solution. They came in two flavours, public and private ones. The public ones were created mostly by small start-ups that provided services to a particular community. I remember one moment where there were around 700 different ones. Unfortunately, for the most part, the business model was nonexistent and after having burned their start-up capital, most disappeared. A few are left in specific industries.

Private hubs have survived, but they required the ecosystem leader (often an OEM) to invest in the development and maintenance of the communication infrastructure required. Some companies, and amongst them HP, have done this to build competitive advantage and it served them well. However, many did wait for a less costly approach.

A community cloud could be just that approach as it provides the partners in the ecosystem with a mechanism to collaborate without having to spend a large initial cost to set-up an infrastructure. A service provider could develop a community platform and make it available to the members for a pay-per-use model. Actually, this is precisely what GS1 and ourselves did with the Food Recall Service we announced a couple weeks ago.

Beside the benefit of not having to invest in the infrastructure upfront, other benefits are the capability of cloud based applications to access distributed information, allowing for the key data to remain on the premises of the partner and under his control. With the current security fears in the cloud, this is an important aspect.

While researching for this entry, I ran into a really interesting article titled: “Digital Ecosystems in the Clouds: Towards Community Cloud Computing” written by Gerard Briscoe from the London School of Economics and Alexandros Marinos from the University of Surrey in the UK. They actually go one step further, and propose the use of the spare capacity in the community members’ data-centers as an infrastructure pool for the community cloud. They go on explaining the benefits of this approach and in particular highlight the integration of both the social structures and technology paradigm of this approach. They point out the steps required to build such approach. Unfortunately, there is one main element they do not speak about and that is the compensation mechanism for the partners that make capacity available. Obviously you can argue they have the capacity anyway, so the additional cost of running virtual machines on the infrastructure is limited. But we all know that companies expect a reward for a service delivered.

A couple years ago, a similar approach was suggested, the desktop grid. It has been used for torrent applications and others. However a number of issues remain and these include:

· System security, obviously the community members won’t want their applications to be affected by the cloud one that is consuming the spare capacity.

· Application security, how do we ensure the computer owners do not intercept and mingle with the data processed by the cloud application

· Performance, due to the wide variety of CPU’s, networks and storage available, one can expect great variations in performance, making the dispatching of cloud services much more complex than in the existing cloud environments where the resources are standardized

· Reliability, spare capacity will come and go at short notice as the computers used have a primary purpose, and this is to run the company’s applications. Reliability of services is becoming quite complex in such environment

The community cloud as described in the article may still be somewhat of a vision, however, companies should take a look at community clouds as they may help them increase the visibility and management of their ecosystems, even if they start by running services of a cloud service provider.

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