Amazon’s CIA cloud renews questions around what is a private cloud

Is Amazon splitting hairs about private clouds?

There’s been loads of talk about Amazon Web Services’ plans, now that it has come to light that the company wants to build a private cloud for the CIA. Does that mean AWS is going back on its long held stance that private clouds don’t make much sense?

It might depend on how you define a private cloud.

dictonaries_0.jpgSource: torisan3500, via Flickr

I asked AWS if it’s currently building private clouds for customers and if it’s building data centers outside of the U.S. designed for use by government agencies. I didn’t get replies to either of those questions, instead I got a statement that I’ve seen at least part of before referencing the CIA deal. It notes that GovCloud and FinQloud are examples of “community clouds” that AWS may build for groups or organizations that have specific requirements.

But as Wired’s Cade Metz noted when he got the same statement, there’s a difference between GovCloud and what AWS could do for the CIA. GovCloud and FinQloud both reside in AWS data centers. The CIA cloud would live in CIA data centers.

So what exactly defines a private cloud? If AWS manages it, regardless of where it lives, is it private or public?

It seems to me that AWS is arguing that a private cloud means that a company manages and owns the hardware and software. “We don't believe that companies can achieve the benefits of cloud computing like increasing speed and agility while reducing both capex and overall operational costs with solutions that require them to manage the cost and complexity of more hardware and more software,” it said in its statement.

That sounds to me like AWS is implying that even if the hardware is on CIA property, if the hardware and software are technically owned and managed by AWS, it’s not private.

You couldn’t call that kind of cloud public. But it also doesn’t seem to fall into AWS’s “community cloud” segment, since those clouds are shared by multiple tenants. It’s just like the managed private cloud services that some other vendors, like Rackspace, offer.

I think AWS is playing with words a bit in the face of a potential contract it can’t resist. Not only will the CIA cloud be worth $600 million over ten years, it could have other benefits as well. Bernard Golden, now part of Dell since it acquired Enstratius, argues that a CIA contract would solve the security concerns that have held back enterprises from signing up for AWS. If the CIA trusts AWS, then most enterprises may figure they can too.

It’s likely only a matter of time before we see more creative clouds coming from AWS. “I think it is a sure thing that they will leverage the CIA win into a series of private clouds for government and enterprise customers,” said Marc Brien, an analyst with Domicity. “Many large enterprise customers will not put significant applications onto AWS unless they can negotiate special terms around data location, security, up-time, and so on, and private clouds make that all easier and more palatable."

Amazon is anxious to win deals with enterprises so that it can graduate from the startups that make up the bulk of its business, he said. Being flexible, as with the CIA, can help AWS win some big deals.

While the CIA deal could be the first, it’s likely not the last of these kinds of deals that we’ll see from AWS.

Read more of Nancy Gohring's "To the Cloud" blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Nancy on Twitter at @ngohring and on Google+. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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