Testbed will help clouds and networks shake hands

The CloudEthernet Forum will use live traffic to develop and refine standards for end-to-end services

A network testbed being constructed just south of San Francisco will help carriers and vendors develop standards for better cloud services, the CloudEthernet Forum says.

The group's OpenCloud Project, announced on Monday, will combine commonly used networking and computing equipment with live traffic from service providers' commercial networks. It's the first place researchers will be able to test new technologies designed to make cloud services more reliable and easier to set up and manage.

As enterprises put cloud-based services to work in conjunction with their own assets, it's become hard to set up fast, reliable connections among all the components being used, according to CloudEthernet Forum President James Walker. Cloud providers may try to deliver a certain level of performance, but they don't own the networks that link them to their customers, said Walker, who is also an executive at carrier Tata Communications.

This can leave enterprises in the lurch, he said, giving the example of a company that pays to have a VM run on a public cloud service like Amazon Web Services.

"The customer's expectation, quite rightly, is that they have an end-to-end service," Walker said. But in fact, neither the carrier nor the cloud provider can see or control the connection all the way to the VM, so there's no way to guarantee the service. That can grow even more complicated if cloud storage is part of making the VM work.

The CloudEthernet Forum plans to develop standard interfaces that the various service providers can use to make their technologies talk to each other. That effort will start with a reference design, which is set to go up for a vote within the organization in November. The OpenCloud Project, based in South San Francisco, will be the testbed for using and refining that reference design.

The Forum can't work like network standards bodies of the past, because there isn't time in the fast-evolving world of cloud computing, leaders of the group said at a media event on Monday at Tata's Silicon Valley data center. Those traditional groups, such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), typically complete their standards and then let vendors build products with them, a process that takes five to seven years.

Instead, the CloudEthernet Forum will probably start with a basic standard and then release updates every six to eight months with additional features, Walker said. "The best model to think of it as, is essentially as a software project," he said. There is no target date yet for delivering the 1.0 version of the standard.

A faster process was one of the things that the major cloud service providers asked for when the Forum met with them last year. Those companies, such as Google, Microsoft and Amazon, still aren't members, but the Forum is in discussions with them, Walker said.

Cisco Systems, which was notably absent when the CloudEthernet Forum was founded last year, has been a member for about two months now, Walker said. The Forum's members represent about 90 percent of the world's Ethernet switching market and 70 percent of the data-center market, he said.

The top cloud companies are becoming some of the biggest buyers of Ethernet products, which will make the Forum's efforts more important over time. But a big reason for the standards it's developing is to help new players join the cloud market, Walker said. Less established cloud providers face an uphill battle if enterprises have to use special tools to work with each one. Standard interfaces should make it easier for those newer players -- there are about 400 today, including some major telecommunications carriers -- to gain a foothold.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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