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Government Steps up to Define Cloud Brokering

US Department of Energy: Proving the cloud service broker model

Emerging markets don’t generally follow smooth, predictable paths. Rather, they struggle and jerk unexpectedly, much like an eaglet escaping from its shell. Vendors, analysts, and pundits may seek to define such markets, but typically fall short. After all, vendors don’t establish markets. Customers do.

Today, cloud computing is still in its birth throes. Yes, many organizations are now achieving value in the cloud, but many more still struggle to understand its true value proposition as cloud service providers (CSPs) and vendors mature their offerings in the space. One problem: cloud computing is not a single market. It is in fact many interrelated markets, as its core service models, infrastructure-, platform-, and software as a service (SaaS), fragment as though they were so many pieces of eggshell.


To bring order to this chaos, a new sub-market of the broader cloud-computing market has emerged: the cloud service broker (CSB). Envision some kind of cloud middleman, helping to cut through the plethora of cloud options and services by offering…well, just what a CSB offers isn’t quite clear. And that’s the problem with the whole notion of a CSB. The market has yet to fully define it.

Not that there aren’t plenty of perspectives on just what a CSB should actually do, mind you. If anything, there are too many opinions, prompting arguments among bloggers and confusion among customers.

Gartner claims CSBs should offer aggregation, integration, and customization, while Forrester delineates simple cloud brokers, full infrastructure brokers, and SaaS brokers – at least initially. And then there’s the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST), who calls for CSBs to provide aggregation, intermediation, and arbitrage, specifically for brokers that would serve the US federal government.

There’s only one way to cut through this confusion: talk to an organization who not only figured out what they wanted from a CSB, but also built one themselves.

But poke around the blogosphere, and many other CSB features come to light. Management is a huge requirement -- or two requirements, actually, as some organizations have needs that focus on business management, while others focus more on the technical aspects of management.

And what about assessments? Shouldn’t your broker assess CSPs who wish to join the CSB, providing some kind of thumbs-up before providers can participate? Then there are the questions about the nature and configuration of the CSB itself. Is it internal to the organization, or a third party much like a real-estate broker might be? And finally, is the broker essentially a software solution, or is it an organization or team in its own right, where software plays a support role to what are essentially a set of brokering business processes?

There’s only one way to cut through this confusion: talk to an organization who not only figured out what they wanted from a CSB, but also built one themselves. The organization in question: the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), an agency of the United States Department of Energy (DOE).

Management and security

According to its Web site, NNSA is responsible for the management and security of the nation’s nuclear weapons, nuclear nonproliferation, naval reactor programs, and related activities. Under the auspices of Deputy Chief Technology Officer Anil Karmel, NNSA and the Los Alamos National Lab (LANL) implemented a CSB they call YOURcloud, in collaboration with partners in the contractor community.

According to Karmel, YOURcloud both leverages and supports the DOE’s Information on Demand (IoD) strategy. It provides a self-service portal for infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) offerings across multiple CSPs, including on-premise, community, and public cloud services like Amazon’s Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2). YOURcloud balances a diversity of choices among IaaS providers for various DOE programs while allowing those programs to maintain full autonomy of their cloud workloads.

YOURcloud users include DOE users, laboratory and plant users, other government agency users, support contractors, and members of the public. DOE business use cases for the CSB include rapid deployment of servers to scientists, security controls based on data sensitivity, calculating energy savings, disaster recovery, and capital expenditure reduction. And of course, security is a paramount concern.

Karmel describes YOURcloud as a “Cloud of Clouds.” In other words, it’s a secure hybrid CSB that incorporates both on-premise and public cloud offerings. This approach gives them a unified management control plane for IaaS and IoD, and in fact, this technical management capability is central to the role of the CSB at NNSA.

The central problem that led NNSA to build YOURcloud was their desire to deploy cloud services rapidly.

The central problem that led NNSA to build YOURcloud was their desire to deploy cloud services rapidly. Before the debut of the broker, cloud deployments had taken 70 days or more, according to Karmel.

NNSA also required a comprehensive security plan that was more sophisticated than the security capabilities other CSBs, both in production as well as on the drawing board, might offer. To this end, YOURcloud delivers software-defined security covering network, storage, and compute resources. It provides adaptive security that covers both NNSA’s virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) as well as service enclaves.

In fact, the notion of service enclaves is central to how YOURcloud deals with security. It’s possible to partition enclaves so that an organization can use one cloud, while protecting sensitive data from users who lack the credentials to access the information in that cloud.

In essence, enclaves provide a container for both workloads and configurations. After a program creates an enclave, it establishes role-based access control (RBAC) by assigning permissions to the organization’s technical staff. In the future, YOURcloud will also provide a shared services enclave that will provide the foundation for enterprise “app store” functionality for the DOE broadly and NNSA in particular.

Critical function
Organization-centric user registration is also a critical function of the CSB. NNSA requires that YOURcloud identify each participating organizations’ top-level contacts in part to prevent unnecessary organization overlap. Users include technical contacts who select providers, create enclaves, grant permissions, and manage configurations. In particular, security contacts provide organizational firewall control, while billing contacts handle billing statement controls.

Cost reduction is one of the most trumpeted benefits of cloud computing, but the government procurement context complicates the ability of departments to leverage the cloud’s utility model. It’s essential, therefore, for YOURcloud to define the cost structure for IaaS, including the duration of the infrastructure services as well as the mechanism for payment.

Simple pay-as-you-go pricing, however, won’t work for the DOE. The risk with such pricing, of course, is the possibility of an unexpectedly large bill. Such unpredictability is inconsistent with normal government procurement processes. Instead, agencies require full allocation, meaning a fixed price for a maximum level of consumption of cloud services. YOURcloud facilitates this full allocation pricing model, and also enables programs to turn off cloud services and hold them for future use. In effect, delivery of the CSB enables the DOE to save money while simultaneously providing an agnostic platform for innovation.

Since NNSA is a government agency, it’s no surprise that YOURcloud follows NIST’s definition of a CSB more closely than Gartner’s or Forrester’s. In fact, YOURcloud exhibits all three of NIST’s CSB capabilities: aggregation, intermediation, and arbitrage. Not only does YOURcloud aggregate pre-approved CSPs, it provides both business intermediation as well technical intermediation.

Perhaps the most important asset YOURcloud brings to the table for DOE is how well it supports program autonomy.

The current version of YOURcloud also has limited arbitrage capabilities in the form of a dynamic cost calculator, as well as chargeback and showback functionality (showback refers to providing management with an analysis of the IT costs due to each department, without actually charging those costs back to the departments).

Perhaps the most important asset YOURcloud brings to the table for DOE is how well it supports program autonomy. YOURcloud allows programs within the DOE to maintain full control over their workloads within the context of a common security baseline. Karmel’s cloud-of-clouds approach enables YOURcloud to broker any organization, through any device, to any service. This respect for program autonomy addresses the “not invented here” problem: program managers can leverage the capabilities of YOURcloud without feeling like the broker is pushing them to select services or follow policies that are not in line with their requirements.

It’s not clear how well YOURcloud will define the characteristics of CSBs across the entire cloud-computing market, but NNSA’s efforts have not gone without notice within the federal government. CSBs are a hot topic across both civilian and military agencies, with the General Services Administration (GSA) and the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) both fleshing out their respective CSB strategies.

That being said, there is no better way to prove a model than by implementing a working, successful example. By implementing a CSB that supports secure, hybrid Cloud environments, NNSA and the DOE have set the bar for the next generation of Cloud Service Brokers.

This BriefingsDirect guest post comes courtesy of Jason Bloomberg, managing partner at ZapThink.

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More Stories By Jason Bloomberg

Jason Bloomberg is a leading IT industry analyst, Forbes contributor, keynote speaker, and globally recognized expert on multiple disruptive trends in enterprise technology and digital transformation. He is ranked #5 on Onalytica’s list of top Digital Transformation influencers for 2018 and #15 on Jax’s list of top DevOps influencers for 2017, the only person to appear on both lists.

As founder and president of Agile Digital Transformation analyst firm Intellyx, he advises, writes, and speaks on a diverse set of topics, including digital transformation, artificial intelligence, cloud computing, devops, big data/analytics, cybersecurity, blockchain/bitcoin/cryptocurrency, no-code/low-code platforms and tools, organizational transformation, internet of things, enterprise architecture, SD-WAN/SDX, mainframes, hybrid IT, and legacy transformation, among other topics.

Mr. Bloomberg’s articles in Forbes are often viewed by more than 100,000 readers. During his career, he has published over 1,200 articles (over 200 for Forbes alone), spoken at over 400 conferences and webinars, and he has been quoted in the press and blogosphere over 2,000 times.

Mr. Bloomberg is the author or coauthor of four books: The Agile Architecture Revolution (Wiley, 2013), Service Orient or Be Doomed! How Service Orientation Will Change Your Business (Wiley, 2006), XML and Web Services Unleashed (SAMS Publishing, 2002), and Web Page Scripting Techniques (Hayden Books, 1996). His next book, Agile Digital Transformation, is due within the next year.

At SOA-focused industry analyst firm ZapThink from 2001 to 2013, Mr. Bloomberg created and delivered the Licensed ZapThink Architect (LZA) Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA) course and associated credential, certifying over 1,700 professionals worldwide. He is one of the original Managing Partners of ZapThink LLC, which was acquired by Dovel Technologies in 2011.

Prior to ZapThink, Mr. Bloomberg built a diverse background in eBusiness technology management and industry analysis, including serving as a senior analyst in IDC’s eBusiness Advisory group, as well as holding eBusiness management positions at USWeb/CKS (later marchFIRST) and WaveBend Solutions (now Hitachi Consulting), and several software and web development positions.

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