Since ZapThink wrote our ZapFlash on Cloud Brokerages in April 2011, the Cloud Brokerage marketplace has exploded. Or at the very least, the noise level involving such Brokerages has reached a fever pitch, which the vendors in the space want you to think is the sound of an exploding market anyway. Regardless of your level of cynicism, however, there’s no question that Cloud Brokerages are a hot topic. But as with so many new markets, confusion reigns—in large part because such Brokerages come in so many different flavors. That being said, this market also suffers from rampant Cloudwashing, which refers to vendors (and service providers) who stick the “Cloud” label on existing offerings to take advantage of the Cloud hype. Let’s see if we can separate the steak from the sizzle and delineate how Cloud Brokerages are actually supposed to work.
Gartner: Cloudwashing Facilitator
For better or worse, many people turn to Gartner when they have questions about nascent IT markets. Gartner, however, is a vendor-driven market research firm, rather than a purveyor of vendor-independent best practices. Their research on Cloud Brokerages is a case in point. Gartner defines a Cloud Service Brokerage (CSB) as being composed of three core roles: aggregation, integration, and customization. They point out that the role of Aggregation Broker aligns with the traditional distributor role; the Integration Broker corresponds to the system integrator (SI); and the Customization Broker similarly aligns with the independent software vendor (ISV).
What’s wrong with this picture is that distributors, SIs, and in particular ISVs pay most of Gartner’s bills. So when they conduct their research, they talk to their customers and find out what kinds of CSBs they’re offering. And what do those customers say? I’m a distributor, but now I’m a Cloud Aggregation Broker! I’m an SI, but now I’m a Cloud Integration Broker! And most tellingly: I’m a software vendor, but now I’m a Cloud Customization Broker! It doesn’t really matter if any of these players have something that actually works, or even if it does, it may have little or nothing to do with the Cloud, and there’s no guarantee that any enterprise buyer will actually want what they’re peddling. But hey, it’s an emerging market, so what do you expect?
Contrast Gartner’s list of CSB roles with those from the US Department of Commerce’s National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST). According to NIST’s Cloud Conceptual Reference Diagram, CSBs have three core capabilities: aggregation, arbitrage, and intermediation. Yes, NIST and Gartner both agree on the importance of aggregation, but that’s where the meeting of minds diverges. NIST calls for arbitrage (support for dynamic pricing in a Cloud services marketplace), but arbitrage isn’t on Gartner’s list. Why not? Perhaps because Gartner didn’t have any Cloud arbitrage vendors to interview when they did their research? Your guess is as good as ours.
As for intermediation, NIST has something quite different in mind from Cloud integration. When a Brokerage intermediates between Cloud customers and Cloud Service Providers (CSPs), the Brokerage provides a range of business-related capabilities, including assurance, consolidated invoicing, and SLA management, independent of whether the Brokerage is also providing integration capabilities between Cloud customers and CSPs. True, CSBs may end up offering integration as well, but more likely as an advanced capability that will become a reality down the road a few years. So why has Gartner included it and not intermediation? Because of the SIs, as well as the B2B integration vendors who have all Cloudwashed their offerings into Cloud Integration Brokerages.
The Two Cloud Brokerage Lifecycles
Instead of taking a vendor-centric perspective on CSBs, let’s think about how people might actually use them. There are two basic types of users for a CSB: the CSP who wishes to make its offering available in the Brokerage, and the Cloud customer who is looking for services from a CSP and is calling upon the CSB to help in some fashion. We expect such customers to be large enterprises who have several departments or divisions who wish to access Cloud services. For such organizations, the Brokerage serves to present a single face to the CSPs while supporting each department’s individual requirements for Cloud services.
To understand the role of the CSB, let’s start with the lifecycle from the CSP’s perspective:
- Registration – The CSP must register with the Brokerage in order to begin the enrollment process.
- Certification/Assessment – The CSB will assess the candidate CSPs and certify the ones that qualify to join the Brokerage.
- Enrollment – The CSP follows the Brokerage’s process for making its services available via the Brokerage.
- Negotiation – Once a customer selects the CSP through the Brokerage, the parties must negotiate a business arrangement. The Brokerage may act as an intermediary or simply hand off the negotiation to the two parties.
- Provisioning – The Brokerage may assist the CSP in provisioning Cloud resources for the customer.
- Management – Management comes in two flavors: business management, where the Brokerage handles invoicing, payments, and other business interactions on behalf of the parties; and technical management, where the Brokerage assists in SLA monitoring and other technical management tasks.
- Assurance – The Brokerage may provide auditing and other assurance activities on behalf of customers to insure CSPs are in compliance with required regulations and other policies.
- Integration – In some cases the Brokerage may act as an integration hub between CSPs and customers.
- Support – The CSP must support the customer, and the CSB may act as an intermediary for such support.
- Deprovisioning – If the customer wishes to discontinue a relationship, the Brokerage may assist with deprovisioning. This step may include delivering data to the customer, confirming customer data no longer reside in the Cloud environment, and wrapping up the business relationship. If the relationship between CSP and customer went south, the CSB may even be called upon to provide litigation support.
Now, let’s take a look at the CSB lifecycle from the Cloud customer’s perspective:
- Research – The CSB must provide information to potential customers so that they can make informed decisions about Cloud options available to them through the Brokerage.
- Qualification – The customer enters its criteria for Cloud services into the Brokerage, and the Brokerage should only show CSPs and individual Cloud services that meet the customer’s requirements.
- Assessment – The CSB may assess the customer’s business or technical environment in order to gauge suitability for particular services available through the Brokerage.
- Selection – The customer selects services through the Brokerage.
- Negotiation – The Brokerage supports the ability for customers and CSPs to negotiate business terms, either by facilitating direct communication or via automated intermediation, which would typically include arbitrage capabilities.
- Acceptance – The customer is able to accept the business terms it selects via the Brokerage.
- Onboarding – The Brokerage supports the customer’s efforts to provision Cloud resources, either by facilitating direct interactions between customer and CSP or via an automated onboarding capability.
- Management – Management appears on both the CSP and customer lifecycles because it always involves managing the relationships between the two (both business and technical).
- Assurance – Assurance also involves both customer and CSP. The Brokerage may take a limited or active role. The CSB will interface with the organization’s Information Assurance organization, but the CSB’s involvement doesn’t absolve the CSP or the Cloud customer from performing their due diligence in meeting their respective security and compliance objectives.
- Integration – When the Brokerage acts as an integration hub.
- Failover – Many customers will use the Brokerage to handle switching from one CSP to another. Such failover may occur as the result of a technical problem (e.g., a denial of service attack brings down the primary CSP) or a business problem (the primary CSP no longer offers the best deal, or in the extreme case, the CSP goes out of business).
- Offboarding – The Brokerage may also handle wrapping up business loose ends should the customer cancel its relationship with a CSP.
The ZapThink Take
The point to listing so many steps on the two CSB lifecycles isn’t to propose a final definition of such lifecycles, of course – the market is far too young for that. If anything, they are wish lists for what we might want Cloud Brokerages to do for us, based not on Brokerage-related products and services on the market today, but rather on what people expect Cloud Brokerages to do. But as with any technical capability, what you want it to do depends upon the core business problems you’re looking to solve. In the case of Cloud Brokerages, there remains a rather diverse set of potential business drivers that is leading the marketplace to grow in a complex, messy fashion.
Not only will individual organizations’ requirements for Brokerages differ, ZapThink is also seeing divergence of requirements among industries. In particular, the US Federal Government is very interested in Cloud Brokerages, with Requests for Information from the General Services Administration (GSA) as well as the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA). In both cases, one of the Government’s key requirements is to support fair competition among CSPs – contrary to private sector customers, who couldn’t care less about such competition, except insofar as it leads to lower prices in the marketplace.
In some ways, the Government is like any other large enterprise. It has hundreds of agencies, each of which may have dozens of individual programs, all clamoring for Cloud services. They are looking to Brokerages to support the ability for such programs to select the best CSP offering for their needs, while providing the best overall value to the Government as a whole. On the other hand, in its role of promoting the general welfare of the people of the US, it is uniquely qualified to foster competition among CSPs and Cloud vendors, leading to better quality and lower prices for everyone.
Image credit: Karen and Brad Emerson