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Feature Stories - Guaranteed services can grow the cloud

You may not realise it, but when you log on to a webmail program, you are using 'cloud computing'. This way of using computing capacity or software hosted by a third party is becoming commonplace. But to grow further, these platforms must become more reliable so businesses can fully depend on them. EU-funded researchers have produced a management platform which does just that.

Digital Economy

According to a recent report, 'Sizing the cloud', by Forrester Research, the global market for cloud computing could reach USD 241 billion (over EUR 178 billion) by 2020. However, this hugely important market, already worth USD 40.7 billion (over EUR 30 billion) in 2010, still has some reliability problems. Problems that have been addressed by the EU-funded project 'Empowering the service economy with SLA-aware infrastructures' or SLA@SOI. In order for more companies to base their mission-critical services on cloud computing platforms, businesses need to know what level of service they can guarantee to customers. According to the project's coordinator Dr Wolfgang Theilmann of SAP in Germany, 'The market is currently poorly served because there is no formal guarantee of the quality of services.' Cloud-service providers in turn depend on internet-service providers and the underlying telecommunications infrastructure and operators. With so many layers of inter-dependency, it is difficult to know what can be promised to cloud-computing customers. The SLA@SOI project has implemented a complete management framework for 'Service level agreements' (SLAs), as well as support for its integration with the existing service-provision platforms. 'This is a key enabler for cloud services,' says Dr Theilmann. 'Right now, they come with poor guarantees - enterprises cannot put business-critical services on this type of cloud, so without SLAs these will not take off as B2B services.' Dr Theilmann gives the example of consumer experience when buying a car: the documentation that comes with the product describes the maximum speed and provides maintenance guarantees. This contrasts with the experience of using software services, which are typically characterised by poorly described quality guarantees for speed, load, etc. All responsibility is loaded on the consumer - the buyer - and this is slowing the adoption of such services by businesses. As another example, many users are happy to make telephone calls or even video conference calls for free via the internet - but this is without any guarantee of quality. If we want higher quality or reliability we may be prepared to pay, but not without an SLA that guarantees the level of service we are paying for. Today, SLA negotiations are carried out by humans through traditional contract-based ways of working, such as using written documents. 'We worked on formalisation,' says Dr Theilmann, to develop 'computer readable, automatic negotiation and monitoring of SLAs by the operator, across different layers.' The project's finished platform is able to make services more predictable, as well as providing for negotiations of SLAs and service provision based on those SLAs. At runtime, the system provides continuous SLA monitoring and readjustment to fulfil the negotiated SLA. The EU provided EUR 9.63 million of the project's EUR 15.21 million budget, and the project ran for three years. The platform produced by the project can handle the full supply chain of service providers, mapping SLAs from higher to lower levels. It therefore provides transparency of service conditions for both consumer and service provider. Understanding and guaranteeing the chain of services 'The challenge was to express all the different needs,' says Dr Theilmann. 'We needed to understand the IT service-based systems involved so as to know which performance levels service providers can guarantee.' He continues: 'Often they don't know what they can guarantee and that's one reason why they tend to put the risk onto the consumer.' The project needed to understand the quality measures for the different elements and layers of IT services and infrastructure. To find a solution, they also needed to integrate different stakeholders' viewpoints. There are three levels of cloud computing services: infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS - basically, renting a computer over the internet as in, for example, Amazon EC2), platform-as-a-service (PaaS - e.g. Google's App Engine, which runs applications without the user needing middleware, webserver or database) and the highest level, software as a service (SaaS - such as Yahoo Mail, where there is no need to install software at all). The SLA@SOI platform is applicable to all these levels; allowing IaaS providers to allocate infrastructure according to higher-level service needs, and permitting SaaS customers to negotiate and be guaranteed the level of service they need. It may even enable service aggregators to offer bundled, inter-dependent services as a package. 'There is always a trade-off between quality and cost at each level,' says Dr Theilmann, 'so we break down desired service levels and calculate the infrastructure needs in order to deliver them.' 'Before, we would need a customer-specific project to tailor a specific system to these needs, but now our standard, inexpensive platform broadens the type of companies able to be a service provider,' he explains. 'If it is easier to take on these risks then it enables smaller companies to enter the market. We have already been contacted by smaller companies interested in the Open Source framework to integrate our solution.' Open Source opens doors to the market 'We created it as an Open Source project,' says Dr Theilmann, 'because we were not aiming to set up a spin-off company. The strategy is that operators can take it and integrate into their management system.' In fact, some of the project's industrial partners are integrating it already: Intel is applying it in managing infrastructure and network resources; Spain's Telefónica applies it in value-added telecommunications services for private consumers; the Italian IT firm Ingegneria Informatica spa developed an eGovernment application for the health sector; SAP has applied it to enterprise resource management SLAs and to support a move into cloud-based solutions; Xlab, a Slovenian SME, is using it for videoconferencing. Two of the research centres in the project, the Fondazione Bruno Kessler (FBK) and the Forschungszentrum Informatik at Karlsruhe University (FZI), are also developing the results further. The next stage is to integrate non-cloud services, carried out by staff, into the platform. For example, if service providers run a support hotline then the platform will also support the management of quality guarantees for this, such as the time it takes users to get an answer. Companies need to be able to collect statistics and monitor workload and performance for such back-office functions in order to manage their overall SLAs. 'There is a strong trend towards solutions to serve mobile users and now, with improved connectivity and mobility, there are many good reasons to go for thin-clients,' notes Dr Theilmann. SLA@SOI is a strategic project that forms part of the Networked European Software and Services Initiative (NESSI), a European Technology Platform (ETP). It was funded by the EU's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), under the ICT sub-programme and budget line for 'Service and software architectures, infrastructures and engineering'. Useful links: - 'Empowering the service economy with SLA-aware infrastructures' - SLA@SOI project data record on CORDIS - Networked European Software and Services Initiative Related articles: - Cloud computing research precipitates spin-off tech - EU project to smooth the path through data-intensive environments - Architects and engineers bridge the grid chasm - Good view from the clouds