Are community cloud services the next hot thing?

When Matthew Lodge, senior director of cloud services for VMware, looks out over the cloud landscape and envisions how it will continue to evolve, he sees community clouds playing a big role. And he's not the only one.

Community clouds can be thought of as subset of public clouds that are tailored to a specific vertical industry, such as government, healthcare or finance, offering a range of services, including infrastructure, software or platform as a service. The National Institute for Standards in Technology defines them as being "an infrastructure shared by several organizations that supports a specific community that has shared concerns."

Read: A world of PaaS-ibilities 

Background: Public cloud vs. private cloud: Why not both? 

A healthcare community cloud, for example, could be tailored to provide specific security and regulatory requirements that are compliant with HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which regulates strict standards for health-related data protection. Or, a financial services community cloud could be optimized to provide ultra-low latency for stock traders to execute financial transactions.

"Ultimately, if there is a cloud that better suits a customer from a business perspective, that can be a much more attractive option than something that's generic and has not been customized for their particular industry," Lodge said.

From a vendor perspective, community clouds let service providers distinguish themselves in a growingly-crowded cloud market place, said Andi Mann, vice president of enterprise and cloud solutions for CA Technologies.

For example, numerous providers offer a range of infrastructure as a service (IaaS) products that appeal to a broad base of customers - vendors include Amazon Web Services, RackSpace, Terremark and Savvis. An offering by a vendor targeted for an individual market though can distinguish that provider and allow it to offer complimentary services to the industry as well. A healthcare IaaS cloud provider, for example, can also provide health-care related software as a service (SaaS), or even PaaS offerings, all targeted for that industry. "It's the difference between providing servers, and providing a service," Mann says.

The concept of community clouds is not new. In September, 2010, Gordon Haff, Red Hat's cloud evangelist, wrote a blogpost noting "The rise of the community cloud." Since then, however, adoption has been slow, Haff admitted. The market is still immature and there has yet to be a shakedown of major community cloud providers. Instead, niche vendors are sprouting up to provide services to specific industries.

"I would say we're still in the relatively early days," Haff recently told Network World. "But there's definitely interest." Government, healthcare and financial sectors are where Haff said there has been the earliest adoption of community cloud rollouts. But there are obstacles. Fundamentally, community clouds are not necessarily a new technology, rather they're a different way of congregating users under an umbrella of services. "The technology is not the hard part, organizing industries is," Haff said. Some businesses may have hesitations sharing common resources with competitors, for example.

Mann says the biggest technical differences between community clouds and public clouds are the functionality characteristics that have been tailored for whatever industry the community cloud serves. A healthcare community cloud, for example, could have specific identity access provisioning and security features that allow users to remain HIPAA compliant with their data storage needs.

Vendors are just beginning to see the competitive advantages of providing community clouds, and the earliest players so far have been providers that already have industry-specific products and services, Haff says. But, Haff, Lodge and Mann all agree that community clouds will likely become more widespread.

Despite community clouds not yet fully catching on, there are some examples in the market. International Game Technology, a vendor of computerized game technology, recently launched its IGT Cloud, aimed specifically at gaming companies. It uses the AppLogic cloud computing platform from CA Technologies to provide cloud-based SaaS offerings for casinos to better manage their games. 

Optum, which is the technology division of UnitedHealth Group, one of the nation's largest insurance providers, is another example. It released its Optum Health Cloud in February as a way for those in the healthcare industry to take advantage of cloud resources. Strict data protection standards regulated by HIPAA, plus a constant pressure to reduce costs and find efficiencies in healthcare management has made community cloud services seem like a natural fit for the industry, says Ted Hoy, senior vice president and general manager of Optum Cloud Solutions. Powered by two data centers owned by Optum, Hoy hopes the community cloud will eventually be able to offer Iaas, SaaS, PaaS for customers.

The service, Hoy says, has differentiating features tailored specifically for the healthcare industry. HIPAA regulations, for example, regulate how secure certain information must be depending on what it is. An e-mail exchange between two doctors about the latest in medical trends needs a different level of protection compared to a communication between a doctor and a patient. Optum worked with Cisco to create security provisions tailor-made for the system that identifies who is entering information, what type of information it is and who has access to it.

But Hoy sees potential for the community cloud. According to a Department of Health and Human Services report, there have been 385 data breaches, the vast majority of which have been lost or stolen physical materials, such as laptops and paper records. "Most of those could be eliminated if we transition healthcare data into a cloud so it's no longer stored on site," he says.

Other community cloud vendors focus on the distinguishing features of their offerings too. For example, CFN Services, which focuses its efforts on providing cloud-based IaaS offerings for financial services companies, recently launched its Global Financial Services Cloud. Financial firms want low-latency connections between their operations and the data centers where their cloud-based IaaS offerings are managed, says CFN CEO Mark Casey. Based on its network of 70 partnering data centers around the country, including those near the financial capital of the world in New York, it provides access for financial firms that are looking for ultra-low latency cloud-based trading services. CFN already works with dozens of financial services companies, and he's hoping to expand the company's market share in cloud services with the new offering.

Haff, of Red Hat, says he expects more announcements like these in the future. Community clouds give vendors an opportunity to differentiate their offerings from competitors, while it gives users an opportunity to take advantage of cloud-based resources that are made specifically for the industry they work in. The biggest question, he says, is getting individual companies to buy in.

Network World staff writer Brandon Butler covers cloud computing and social media. He can be reached at BButler@nww.com and found on Twitter at @BButlerNWW.

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