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Cloud Connect: NIST Prepares 'Use Case' Site

The National Institute of Standards and Technology will build a "use case" repository that may eventually give shape to cloud computing specifications.

Charles Babcock

March 18, 2010

4 Min Read

NIST, a federal agency that has been instrumental in defining cloud computing, will take on an additional role as a central publisher of cloud use cases accompanied by a recommended reference technology implementation.

It's not standards setting, exactly, something the weary veterans of government vs. industry battles inside the National Institute of Standards and Technology would rather avoid. But the airing of strong use cases where a technology set is deemed suitable for a particular problem could lead to a specification for a standard, a NIST representative at the Cloud Connect show in Santa Clara, Calif., said Wednesday in an interview.

Lee Badger, a computer scientist in the Computer Security Division of NIST, said use cases submitted by federal agencies, vendors in the computer industry, or enterprise cloud implementers will be reviewed and validated by NIST, to see if they prove to be a satisfactory solution to a problem.

"We will make the results available to everyone" at a future portal site that is likely to be built by this unit of the agency, Badger said. No date has been set for launch and Badger resisted committing the agency to any time frame that fell within the next few months. But he didn't reject the notion that it is likely to be in operation sometime this year.

Last fall, NIST was charged by federal CIO Vivek Kundra with coming up with a process that validates successful cloud implementations within the federal government and airs them for other agencies to consider.

The use case validation site is part of fulfilling that charter. The reviews are meant to quickly share expertise derived from early efforts "so each agency doesn't have to do the work all over again," Badger said after the panel, "Where are Standards Going?" He was not a member of the panel, but NIST's name came up frequently in comments on standards as Badger sat in the audience.

Asked for an example of a use case that it might review, he said many early cloud users want to figure out how they will move their workloads among clouds. "People care about being able to move data and processes from one cloud to another," he said.

Asked if they might also want a common virtual machine format to move workloads from the enterprise into cloud, Badger restricted himself to the former comment. The issue of transferable virtual machine formats plunges into different vendors' interests. For example, Amazon Web Services uses a proprietary format, AMI or Amazon Machine Images, for its EC2 cloud, by far the market leader.

VMware has been seeding new cloud providers with software that enables them to run VMHD files, its favored format. So far, Verizon and AT&T have plunged into cloud computing with that as their favored specification for workloads.

Microsoft's VHD, which works with its Hyper-V hypervisor and Citrix Systems XenServer, is another format.

During the panel, several members of the audience disparaged the notion that a standards setting body or government agency might generate specifications that in some way aided the further development of cloud computing. Several suggested that standards were best set by the marketplace, where the most useful technologies tend to win out over those that are over complicated or inefficient once implemented.

The discussion between standards advocates on the panel, such as Winston Bumpus, VMware's director of standards and president of the DMTF standards body, and members of the audience was vigorous.

One attendee named Mark declared that the debate was of little value because the most important cloud vendor, Amazon, wasn't in the room and would decline to attend any future discussion of standards.

The truth about standard setting, he said, was that they were set by a defacto shakeout in the marketplace, and dominant vendors tended to produce the defacto standards. Sometimes lesser vendors get together to support a standard in hopes of "slowing the market leader down" and get it to adhere to a standard that they can use themselves.

"It's a little bit of oversimplication," Mark said, "but this is a meeting of losers."

A moment later, Bumpus responded: "I'm not trying to slow Amazon down, but they shouldn't be off by themselves" as the only influence over cloud computing standards.

Archie Reed, panel member and chief technologist for cloud security at HP, agreed. Reed sits on the Cloud Security Alliance, an industry group seeking to establish the means of defining security levels and supplying standards for security in the cloud. "Some of the standards groups are moving pretty fast. Amazon has a lot wrapped up in proprietary standards, but rarely does one company satisfy all its customers' needs," he warned.

When it comes to cloud computing, shared standards are going to emerge that increase the value of the cloud and some of them may prove dangerous for any one vendor to ignore, he said.

About the Author(s)

Charles Babcock

Editor at Large, Cloud

Charles Babcock is an editor-at-large for InformationWeek and author of Management Strategies for the Cloud Revolution, a McGraw-Hill book. He is the former editor-in-chief of Digital News, former software editor of Computerworld and former technology editor of Interactive Week. He is a graduate of Syracuse University where he obtained a bachelor's degree in journalism. He joined the publication in 2003.

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