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By Michael Eggebrecht
Cloud vendor lock-in is a problem without a villain, according to Tom Hughes-Croucher, a technical evangelist at Yahoo. "Nobody planned this," he said. "There's no evil intention." But the lack of interoperability between cloud computing vendors is a very real -- and growing -- problem all the same.
"These aren't clouds, they're bubbles," asserted Hughes-Croucher at the Web 2.0 Expo earlier this month. At the New York conference, he gave a presentation on the subject with Carlos Bueno, a user interface specialist for Yahoo Mail, who summed up the issue: "If you stay inside one vendor, everything is cheap and wonderful. If you go outside, everything becomes expensive."
Thanks to latency and bandwidth metering, switching vendors, or using one provider for a task it does better -- or more cheaply -- than others, is so difficult that it can be nearly impossible.
Lock-in has been getting increased attention as cloud services providers continue to nab customers at a rapid clip. In a recent report, the European Network and Information Security Agency highlighted lock-in as one the biggest risks involved with cloud computing. "There is currently little on offer in the way of tools, procedures or standard data formats or services interfaces that could guarantee data and service portability," said the report. That makes it very difficult to move data from provider to provider, or to and from internal servers.
Hughes-Croucher and Bueno, who worked for Xoopit, an e-mail indexing and photo sharing startup that Yahoo acquired in July, have taken on the issue as a sort of side project to their work at Yahoo. Lock-in, which they compare to the sorry state of international mail before infrastructure improvements and an 1890 treaty, is limiting freedom of choice for cloud customers, they say, and will come back to bite vendors.
But for cloud providers right now, "it's just not on their radar," said Bueno in an interview. "The market is so untrammeled that they're focused on new features and competing and getting new customers. There are so many new potential customers out there, it's not an issue yet."
The two Yahoo employees want to help draw attention to the problem before it magnifies, and thousands of cloud customers are forced to find work-arounds. In addition to supporting open APIs and formats, it's time, they say, for cloud vendors to look into establishing peering agreements to reduce latency and make it faster and cheaper for customers to use multiple providers.
Data centers tend to flock together, a fact that Hughes-Croucher and Bueno demonstrate graphically at cloud-peering.com, a Web site they operate to show that cloud companies like Amazon, 3tera and Rackspace have clusters of data centers in the same areas -- Texas, the New York metropolitan area, Silicon Valley. "We're not asking cloud vendors to go all the way around the world to make this work," said Hughes-Croucher. "We're asking them to go across town."
And while this might not be a priority for the vendors, it will -- in the long run -- open up new opportunities for them. Instead of fighting for a little piece of the pie, said Hughes-Croucher, they can make the whole pie much bigger.
It also opens up new possibilities, like a spot market for storage, an idea Bueno credited to Toby Negrin, a product manager in cloud management solutions at Yahoo. "If storage becomes fungible," said Bueno, "you can transfer it fairly quickly, even if it's just backups. You could feasibly trade it with somebody else: 'I have servers in Hong Kong, you have servers in Atlanta? OK, let's agree to store each other's backups, so that neither of us have to have two data centers somewhere.'"