Most major players in the IT industry have attempted to take ownership of the cloud computing agenda over the past couple of years. With each one defining cloud in a different and often very contrived way, much confusion and scepticism has been created among customers.

Even when suppliers have tried to play the cloud game with a straight bat, they have often failed to appreciate the practicalities of the real world in which their customers live. Time and time again, our research at Freeform Dynamics has identified disconnects between vendor propositions and the requirements of mainstream IT professionals in this whole area. While it is easy to talk in simplistic terms about a move to the cloud, the devil is in the detail, and too many supplier pitches come across as idealistic or naïve.

Against this background, representatives of Intel and BMW yesterday gathered a group of analysts and reporters to the CERN research establishment in Geneva to announce the Open Data Centre Alliance (ODCA). The aim of this new initiative is to help shape the evolution of cloud computing at an industry level in a much more objective manner.

Unlike vendor driven consortia that spring up from time to time, the ODCA doesn't appear to be some political association of convenience to allow one faction to position against another. It is owned and run by customers, and some big ones at that. On the steering committee, for example, are prominent brands such as China Life, Deutsche Bank, J.P. Morgan Chase, Lockheed Martin, Marriott International Inc, National Australia Bank, Shell, Terremark, UBS, along with BMW.

Speaking on behalf of the ODCA, Mario Mueller, VP of IT Infrastructure for the BMW Group, talked about dealing with the rising cost of IT. Nothing new in that, but while outlining the rationale for the new alliance, he also spoke of the opposing pulls of managing the complexity of heterogeneous environments and the risk of vendor lock-in when the alternative homogenous path is pursued.

This dilemma is a familiar one to many of us. A degree of architectural and building block consistency is required to achieve the full potential of the next-generation dynamic data centre promise. CIOs and architects tell us through our research that the role of standardisation around the technology stack is well understood and appreciated. At the same time, however, we commonly encounter a reticence to commit to integrated stack propositions in which the likes of Oracle and Cisco deliver everything — server, storage, networking — pre-optimised out of the a box. The fear is lack of flexibility to substitute components and an uncomfortable level of specific vendor dependency.

The ODCA hopes to make things better by defining customer requirements for openness and flexibility collectively then articulating these with a single voice. To this end, the alliance has already identified a range of usage scenarios or use cases to which cloud technology and services are relevant. A series of working parties has been created to flesh these out and report back to both the ODCA membership and the broader industry from the first quarter of 2011 onwards.

In many ways, this represents a bunch of big customers saying enough is enough and declaring that they are now taking ownership of the cloud agenda, with interoperability being at the top of the wish list, along with automation and client awareness. This last point refers to the increasing challenge of end-point diversity in the enterprise, with various forms of desktop virtualisation coming onto the scene, along with an expanding range of devices such as smart phones and slates.

In an ideal world, computing clouds should work seamlessly in a federated manner and deliver services to each end point in line with its nature, capabilities and constraints, but such things are easier said than done.

And this is where Intel comes in. As an advisor to the ODCA, it will help in the definition of roadmaps and act as a catalyst or facilitator in the game of getting other industry players motivated and committed to the cause. As a company that sits way back in the supply chain, with no real axe to grind in the front delivery space as suppliers duke it out at the product and service level, it is well placed to fulfill this role.

In tactical terms, Intel has a history of making things happen through a combination of general market awareness raising via its marketing machine coupled with firm pushing from behind to get the ecosystem moving.

The WiFi market would not have developed as quickly as it did without such efforts from Intel a few years ago. Of course some aggressive R&D to throw enabling technology into the mix is also part of the process, and Intel is not afraid to go out of a limb a bit here.

All in all, this is a very interesting move, and in my view the timing is right for a customer led initiative after the vendors have made such a hash of things. With this in mind, it will interesting to see who in the vendor community picks up the mantle and responds. Definitely one to watch.

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