dinCloud: Making a Big Impact in the Cloud

Have you reached the saturation point yet on the cloud? The endless cacophony of cloud messages seems to have transformed into white noise, where trying to distinguish and differentiate among competitive cloud offerings can leave one in either a state of decision-making paralysis or trusting that familiar vendors know what they're talking about without, perhaps, the full measure of due diligence that is appropriate. Enter dinCloud, which plans to break through the droning blather and show how it

David Hill

February 3, 2012

14 Min Read
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Have you reached the saturation point yet on the cloud? The endless cacophony of cloud messages seems to have transformed into white noise, where trying to distinguish and differentiate among competitive cloud offerings can leave one in either a state of decision-making paralysis or trusting that familiar vendors know what they're talking about without, perhaps, the full measure of due diligence that is appropriate. Enter dinCloud, which plans to break through the droning blather and show how its approach to cloud is different.

Product differentiation can be tricky. Recall the words from a Carly Simon song: "What has she got that I haven't got?" When one vendor makes a claim, another will claim the same capability (checklist marketing, anybody?), even though there may be fundamental, inescapable differences. So please bear with me while I lay a foundation for dinCloud's story.

dinCloud offers just about everything in a set of cloud-based services that you would find in a regular data center, but the gem of its empire is its virtual desktop solution. One way of thinking of the dinCloud offering would be VDI (virtual desktop infrastructure) in the cloud, but the company disavows that term because it is too limiting. Instead, dinCloud provides what it calls the hosted virtual desktop (HVD) service--"hosted" because the service can be provided on premises (private cloud), off premises (public cloud) or in combination (hybrid cloud).

Now, HVD is not all that clouds can be, obviously, since there are other important uses of the cloud, such as test and development and disaster recovery as a primary service. (In fact, dinCloud does perform data protection and disaster recovery for its HVD and other services.) So how is HVD different from VDI, and why is that difference important?

VDI is a variant of the longstanding client-server model where a desktop operating system is hosted on a virtual machine (VM) that runs on a centralized server. All processes, applications and data are kept on and run on a central server. Although there are variants, one view is that PCs and laptops would be replaced by thin clients (which in the past would be called dumb terminals, but the name was changed to be a more marketing-friendly and less pejorative--dumb vs. intelligent--term). The primary benefit to IT includes reduced administrative burdens, since trying to upgrade, provision and manage thousands of desktops can be a real hassle. The challenges of VDI from an IT perspective are security, downtime (if not running a clustered file system), and just the general complexity and high initial costs of VDI purchase and deployment.

Fundamentally, the physical infrastructure of a data center with servers, such as blade servers, networking, such as Ethernet, and storage, such as the use of Fibre Channel SANs, is not designed to handle VDI deployments that can easily run into thousands of users. Trying to apply VDI software tools on an existing infrastructure runs into a wide range of technical issues that essentially make scaling of VDI untenable within its necessary performance requirements. For example, a single LUN on iSCSI or Fibre Channel SAN storage can handle only up to 64 virtual machines/users. Moreover, a key question to ponder is whether the infrastructure can handle the I/O demand patterns that VDI requires. Hint: The answer is likely no.

The requirement then is to create a separate, purpose-built VDI infrastructure--which is what dinCloud has done--that can be deployed as either a private or public cloud. A key part of dinCloud's success is InfiniBand. It has much lower latency than Ethernet, it virtualizes all of the network connectivity, it doesn't require a hypervisor reboot when provisioning/de-provisioning I/O to the host, and it doesn't involve the same sheer mess of cables. This is only one of many, many changes that dinCloud (in conjunction with its 20-plus dinStack coalition partners) has done to optimize for virtual desktops.

Quite frankly, IT organizations could try to roll their own, but they would have to reinvent the wheel where both the learning curve and the cost could very easily be too high. Moreover, individual organizations are unlikely to be able to have all the skills, resources or time to do the job as well. dinCloud's intellectual property (IP) is its secret sauce--allowing the company to embrace a new generation of cloud-oriented data center requirements and also making it unlikely that the company's solutions will be replicated by individual enterprise efforts.

In its purpose-built cloud, dinCloud provides the key elements of a central service for all processes, applications and data, but does not require the users to change their current way of working. But how does dinCloud provide the necessary infrastructure at an affordable cost?

The virtual desktop concept requires a bit more of an explanation since it, too, often has more than one connotation. Typically, virtual desktop infrastructures or interfaces refer to network or Internet-connected devices in which a partial or substantial amount of processing is performed or data resides in a central data center. Thin- or zero-client devices are used as endpoints to utilize these centralized resources. Yet, dinCloud doesn't use either--citing the high cost yet inability of most such devices to equal, much less surpass, the physical desktop experience many users enjoy today.

dinCloud expands the virtual desktop concept to include any personal computing device a worker uses to access information from/for his or her employer. That could be a desktop located in a company office, but it could also be a mobile device, such as a laptop or tablet, or even a smartphone. (Android support is available today, with Windows and Apple support coming.) It could also include public computers that an individual uses for a short period of time, such as those at a library or a hotel. Note that one individual may use multiple devices, and that the company may not own or control who has access to many or even most of the devices that any individual employee uses. Note also that not only do users expect to use a device at any geographical location, but they also want to enjoy an experience that reflects their needs.

In fact, user experience is critical to the overall value of any VDI solution. Recall that each device has physical (such as screen size), software-hardware (mouse vs. touch screen) and software (user interface functionality) characteristics that distinguish it. That does not mean that all issues have been solved; standard business apps such as Word and PowerPoint can be easily displayed on an iPad, but many common video capabilities (such as Adobe Flash support) available for Windows clients are not natively available on Apple's iPads or iPhones. In addition, devices must allow users to securely access information meant for them alone, such as some email (and that can be commingled between business and personal e-mail communications). Users must also be able to share common internal data (such as HR forms and documents) as well as information that is company-external, like communications with partners or customers.

The user may also make use of public communications and collaboration services (such as Twitter and LinkedIn) and information sites (such as Google searches) that may be commingled, as employees often use business devices for private use. Finally, the user should be able to personalize the look and feel of the device (what icons are displayed, what size they are, and so on). The bottom line is that each individual worker has unique requirements that must be preserved (no master clone will be allowed). Failure to respect those requirements may find users chafing at the constraints at first, but will eventually (if not much sooner) result in the business equivalent of an immune system "rejection" of the proposed system.

Obviously, dinCloud respects and preserves mandatory and inevitable requirements for uniqueness as it provides the HVD cloud-based services for businesses. If it didn't, the company wouldn't stand much of a chance. That gets us to the second connotation of the company's HVDs, where the "desktop"--including corporate data, personalized preferences and so on--actually resides securely in the cloud. Since an individual device may be lost, stolen, suffer from irreparable hardware failure, be confiscated either temporarily or permanently by customs officers, or suffer any number of other common and exotic fates, workers must to be able to quickly and seamlessly access business information using a new device. This is possible if the information is stored on a central system somewhere in the "cloud."

The only way to manage, control and provide support to all those devices is centrally in what is called a cloud. This HVD approach (not just for dinCloud, but in general) is not a nice-to-have; it is a must-have. Why? IT-as-a-service (which is often seen as the end stage of the cloud) is a chimera unless end users can have access to applications and data that they need when they need it on any device, any time and anywhere. This view of end user computing may be seen as the tail that wags the IT dog, but so be it.

Although enthusiastic in general, I still tend to be a bit conservative, so you know I have strong feelings when I say that this approach is a killer app for the cloud. Note that this is not the only use of the cloud (as previously mentioned) nor the only possible killer app. Nor does it mean that dinCloud is perfect and has all the answers or that others might not have or be able to come up with attractive solutions. What it should say is that dinCloud has addressed an issue that is of critical importance and that others would do well to do the same.

Rather than businesses and employees having to adjust their habits and expectations according to the limitations of a given technology/device, dinCloud offers a common infrastructure that allows multiple classes of technology to seamlessly support the needs of the business and its employees.

The dinCloud solution may be easy to describe, but it conceals the need for a rich and robust infrastructure to deliver end user-centric computing as a service. The dinCloud architecture looks somewhat like a next-generation data center with all its various virtualized servers, networking and storage capabilities. The architecture deals with security, data protection and disaster recovery issues in a way that dinCloud feels provides a very secure (solving common concerns that otherwise cloud the cloud) solution, as well as one that is highly available (because the infrastructure has to provide a mission-critical, enterprise class level of reliability).

How in the world is a young company like dinCloud able to do all this? Because it has facilitated the creation of an ecosystem called the dinCloud Coalition. For example, NetApp provides the storage infrastructure that supports data, information and storage management capabilities, including snapshots and disaster recovery. Trend Micro provides its security capabilities. Microsoft is another close partner that is working closely with dinCloud and with other partners in the coalition (such as Cisco and NetApp) to improve existing technologies, including cloud protocols, that can further improve performance.

Now, you can see the benefits to dinCloud from working with established (and sometimes much, much larger companies) in that it doesn't have time to invent all of the infrastructure technology wheels on its own and it can use the enterprise-class capabilities of its partners in the ecosystem. But the question might be why would the larger partners, such as Microsoft, want to participate (in more than an "I'll lend you my name so that you can say that you work with me" partnership)? The reason is that dinCloud's solution preserves the Microsoft hegemony as Microsoft Exchange (and other Microsoft products) can be used in the central cloud just as before and there is no incentive to switch to competing applications. Moreover, dinCloud can run Windows apps on non-Windows devices, such as Apple's iPad and Android tablets.

An ecosystem works well if each partner clearly sees its self-interest today and no threats to that self-interest in the future. For the other partners, dinCloud provides a valuable service in facilitating and gluing a very complex infrastructure together. These partners will ride the rising tide if the dinCloud solution takes off. Note that dinCloud works with service providers to provide its service rather than trying to manage all clouds themselves, and the company states that even at this early stage, 98 data centers in 39 locations use the dinCloud service.

Still, even if the infrastructure works as advertised, could there not be some other problems? The answer is yes, but, if so, they are not obviously intuitive. dinCloud feels that its solution scales as needed, but the question of latency arises. When a user is working with data and applications that may be physically housed thousands of miles away, are there any latency delays that might range from simple annoyance (noticeable delays in response time to response time sensitive requests) to total frustration in not being able to perform a given task? dinCloud emphatically states that latency is not an issue. Coast-to-coast latency over the Internet is only 120 ms, so connecting the purpose-built dinCloud to the public network known as the Internet is not a problem. (For example, recently I downloaded an iPad2 app from another company that demonstrated the use of medical images over the Internet from a distance of thousands of miles, and there was no apparent latency issue.)

A key remaining issue is price. Given the breadth and depth of the infrastructure required and the players involved, how much does the service cost? dinCloud offers the HVD service for $65 per month per user for use of the full infrastructure. By doing so, a customer's IT investment changes from a capex (capital expense) model to an open (operating expense) model, which makes life easier for IT in the budgeting process.

Is that a good price? The answer is that this is a much lower price than is typically quoted. So how can dinCloud do it? Economies of scale (where quantity discounts are obtained for larger volumes) and the famous Boston Consulting Group's learning curve model (where costs per unit supplied go down because of learning how to do things better) applies, but there is more than that. The price of computing and storage is still plummeting. Wouldn't $65 for a single month be enough to pay for protected storage for a single user for a long time? So there are ways to cut costs, and dinCloud has apparently found them.

Many (if not most) of us may feel about the cloud similar to how Mark Twain felt about the weather: "Everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it." While we shouldn't go to that extreme (as there is a lot of action happening in cloud), we might wonder if there can be any way to inspire more action and less talk. Well, dinCloud has shown some action in an unexpected area.

On the surface, one might not consider the subject of HVDs as being a primary candidate for the cloud, and while I don't want to indulge in hyperbole, it could very well become a killer cloud application. That is because the raison d'etre of the cloud is IT as a service, and that is not possible if the user cannot access the same applications and data whenever and wherever necessary across multiple computing devices. And that is possible only if a public cloud (a central data center available via multiple networks) is part of the deal.

dinCloud's solution is of value to three key constituencies: to IT, which can't cost-effectively manage the end user computing revolution on the way to providing IT-as-a-service in the cloud without a purpose-built solution like this one; to end users, who need this type of solution so that they can have it their own way, using their own computing devices anywhere at any time; and to CFOs (that is, the bean counters), who have a solution that saves the company money while users have smiles instead of complaints about what they had to give up.

Now, dinCloud may not have the only solution (as it is unlikely that any company offers anything totally unique) for personalized employee computing, but with HDV it has thrown down a gauntlet competitors will have to take seriously.

At the time of publication, dinCloud was not a client of David Hill and the Mesabi Group.

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