Federated Cloud: The Next Generation of Cloud Services

It’s hard to argue the impact the cloud has had on IT and business over the past decade. It’s made the world smaller by making collaboration easier. The consumer cloud file sharing services that have made our personal lives easier – Dropbox, Google Drive, iCloud, Microsoft OneDrive, etc. – are now rampant within enterprise IT organisations. This first generation of cloud file sharing flourished because it followed the famous Apple mantra: “it just works.” Simple, functional user interfaces made it easy for end-users to understand and use. People got used to that ease-of-use in their personal lives and soon demanded the same of their enterprise file sharing. At the same time, this model requires almost no maintenance – it’s often an easy plug-and-play solution that enables fast, cheap collaboration.

[easy-tweet tweet=”The first generation of #cloud #filesharing flourished because it followed the famous Apple mantra: It just works”]

But this public cloud model has always had a very big, very obvious problem. In an era of cyber-warfare, data breaches, hacking and concerns over government access, user data stored in a centralised cloud infrastructure can lead to serious privacy and security problems – both real and perceived. Whether it’s Dropbox passwords being exposed en masse, iCloud or Sony hacks of sensitive photos and emails or the NSA demanding (and getting) access to information stored on public cloud servers, these solutions simply didn’t have the enterprise-class security needed to ensure ownership and control of data.

There are a host of additional issues with the public cloud model. For instance, when the file storage location cannot be changed, this creates legal and regulatory issues for enterprises. Additionally, software that cannot be audited or inspected, puts all of the responsibility and power in the hands of a third party – even when it’s your data at risk of being exposed. Extensibility can also suffer, as administrators struggle to integrate or extend the solution into other systems. 

[easy-tweet tweet=”User #data stored in a centralised #cloud infrastructure can lead to serious privacy and #security problems”]

In response to these concerns, we then saw the rise of the private cloud – a second generation of solutions where software was installed on-premise, on infrastructure controlled and owned by the enterprise. This has the benefits of enhances security, integration and extensibility, and has gained a big slice of the cloud services market share in recent years. But this model has its own limitations, most notably the inability to collaborate and share data outside of a specific enterprise running one of these private clouds. And when you think back to the reason cloud computing took off, the value proposition at its very core comes down to cost and collaboration. Without collaborative benefits, the private cloud is really just a watered down version of what the cloud was supposed to be.

With a monolithic, centralised first generation of cloud services that can’t protect your data and a second generation that’s more secure but discourages collaboration, the stage is set for the next generation of cloud computing.

the stage is set for the next generation of cloud computing

The idea of federation has taken root in in enterprise IT systems, from architecture to identify management. But it has not yet made its way to the cloud. In computing, the word “federation” is used to describe a group of servers acting as a single system. The best example for the use of federation in enterprises is email. Regardless of whether you’re using a secure, private server (your company’s, for instance) or a large, public one (Gmail, perhaps), everyone can exchange information and retain the benefits and drawbacks of the service they’re using.

[easy-tweet tweet=”In computing, the word “federation” is used to describe a group of #servers acting as a single system” user=”comparethecloud” usehashtags=”no”]

Using the idea of federation for cloud-based file sharing, for example, picture a scenario where each user uses their local, on-premise service with all the benefits mentioned above, but with the additional capability of being able to communicate with each other across servers and organisations. This federation removes the final barrier preventing private clouds from reaching their potential – easy, secure collaboration with external parties. It’s the realisation of the potential we all envisioned the first time someone explained the concept of cloud computing to us (before the almost-immediate security/privacy concerns crept in and gave us pause).  Federated cloud services have the potential to be extremely powerful by combining the benefits of centralised consumer services with the security and privacy benefits of on-premise deployments.

So how would this play out in a real enterprise?

Think of a global company – collaboration has to take place not only among disparate offices across the globe, but with a network of other companies. Whether it’s a parts supplier, a management consultant, or any other organisation the company outsources to and collaborates with, there’s a real need for universal, real-time file access. With federated cloud services, it’s possible that teams and users across these different geographies and companies can share folders and documents – just like we all do within our own enterprises.

Cloud computing is here to stay – it’s becoming an increasingly prevalent and important part of enterprise IT backbones. But despite the successes to date, cloud computing has yet to deliver on its initial promise of seamless, secure collaboration. Federation has been a transformative concept in the enterprise tech world for a long time, and the time has come for the federated cloud – the next era of cloud computing.

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