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Cloud Service Brokers: What You Need to Know

Though cloud computing is still in its relative infancy, the many advantages of this approach have resulted in rapid interest and adoption. As new, innovative approaches continue to emerge, it’s becoming clear that simple, straightforward cloud interoperability is often not realistic nor the most advantageous.

Determining the most beneficial ways to procure, implement and manage cloud technologies can present complex issues for users – a need which has led to the rise of the cloud service broker. Enabled by new cloud technologies and standards, vendor-neutral, third-party cloud service brokerages can offer users expertise and a single point of contact when working with multiple providers.

Cloud Services in the Real World

Cloud architectures take advantage of web-based technologies to allow scalable, virtualized IT resources to be provided as a service over the network. For many, the term “cloud” connotes public cloud solutions in which an organization accesses third-party resources on an as-needed basis, without the requirement to invest in additional internal infrastructure. However, the cloud model can also be implemented for existing legacy and/or “owned” systems in what is termed a private cloud. A hybrid cloud, as the name implies, uses a combination of both public and private clouds, and has fast-become the model of choice for most organizations looking to fully exploit the technical advantages of the cloud.

For example, an organization may elect to store sensitive data in a private cloud, while utilizing the dynamic and cost-effective public cloud for other operations. In Figure 1, we see a number of different scenarios typical in today’s cloud integrations: private, public, and even a cloud that gets resources from a second cloud (in effect, hidden from the data center).

Figure 1

In the midst of this complexity, some users would like their cloud service to enable them to manage and monitor the infrastructure as they would their own data centers, while other users prefer an environment where data is managed to specified Service Level Agreements (SLAs), with little or no user involvement.

Cloud Broker Advantages

At the bottom of Figure 1 is the cloud service broker, a third-party that can access resources from multiple clouds, and is typically connected to multiple data centers. Often, brokers own their own cloud(s), and have their own resources, while in other instances they perform the role of a more literal “broker,” helping facilitate the relationships and agreements necessary on behalf of an organization.

Though each broker and arrangement will vary, among the services and advantages many cloud brokers offer include:

  • Helping users determine the best framework for each individual need, based on a number of factors. This can include provisioning assistance and budget guidance, as well as identifying how to select and integrate disparate services across multiple hybrid approaches.
  • A simplified interface, with interoperability benefits – including single sign-on. These rules-based solutions can enable simplified management across the cloud resources, hiding the complexity inherent in working with multiple providers.
  • Cost-effective resources and infrastructure advantages, including the ability to negotiate technical contracts on-the-fly, delivering the high levels of flexibility businesses are now demanding.
  • Enhanced security, allowing organizations to develop a customized solution that balances cost benefits with key security concerns.
  • Assurance that upgrade, repair, and maintenance activities are performed in a non-disruptive fashion.

The fear of losing control over data management is among the reasons for hesitancy about cloud services, but a good broker can help users identify their ideal level of management oversight, and implement a cloud service to meet those needs. The user will still know what the broker is doing, and an administrator can and should set the policies to help alleviate these concerns.

The Role of Cloud Standards

Cloud provider-independence, which is enhanced by cloud service brokers, is further enabled by industry standards. These standards are now available to help provide the level of dynamic flexibility and portability that will take cloud computing to the next level.

At the Distributed Management Task Force (DMTF), we’re making available interoperability standards that will help move workloads in a standard way between data centers and the cloud. The DMTF’s Cloud Infrastructure Management Interface (CIMI) Model helps define what the scenarios are, and provides interfaces to help with, the integration of the different types of service providers. CIMI works with the DMTF’s Open Virtualization Format (OVF) Specification, which provides a way to package multiple machines and their requirements, which can be exchanged with the cloud service and cloud service broker.

From a standardization perspective, cloud service infrastructure management is the part of the cloud that can be simplified and have a hidden, common interface. Once a connection is made and a resource instantiated, the functional interface (for example, a database) should connect directly to that resource to avoid the associated overhead and latency that would otherwise be introduced. CIMI focuses on Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), as opposed to Platform as a Service (PaaS) or Software as a Service (SaaS), so users and brokers can move entire workloads.

The basic resources of IaaS (machines, storage, and networks) are modeled with the goal of providing consumer management access to an implementation of IaaS, and facilitating portability between cloud implementations that support the CIMI specification. CIMI specifies a Representational State Transfer (REST)-style protocol using HTTP, however, the underlying model is not specific to HTTP, and it is possible to map it to other protocols as well. As noted above, CIMI does not extend beyond infrastructure management to the control of the applications and services that the user chooses to run on the infrastructure, provided as a service by the provider.

Though CIMI isn’t a replacement interface for the different clouds, we compare it to the Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) – there continue to be various directory services, but developers like to develop to LDAP because it’s a platform-independent interface. Similarly, the CIMI interface provides a majority of the function users need to access and achieve portability in the cloud.

Especially as new platforms are being developed, this offers the opportunity to reduce the complexity of cloud management. Virtualization has enabled cloud services and now, we can move the image, the operating system, and the application service as a single unit, which gives organizations the freedom to change their implementation according to their evolving business needs.

This ability to evolve and adapt as needs change in a dynamic, flexible fashion is one reason standards and cloud service brokers often go hand-in-hand. In addition, leading cloud service providers are open to standards-based flexibility, because it allows them to differentiate based on specialized offerings and expertise. The ROI and value-add becomes more important, as data is no longer held hostage.

There are a number of important cloud standards initiatives taking place across the industry, and standards bodies are collaborating to help them work together. This includes the Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA), which offers the Cloud Data Management Interface (CDMI) specification for data storage as a service (DaaS), and the Cloud Security Alliance, which works to develop best practices and techniques around existing security standards for use in a cloud setting. All of these standards and the organizations behind them, from OpenCloud to Apache Deltacloud, are working together to help ensure CIMI provides the infrastructure management necessary for today’s complex, brokered clouds.


In many cases, if a business is using just one provider, it’s cutting itself off from future possibilities. Cloud service brokers use of standards will help users benefit from best-in-class offerings from different providers, while keeping the back end simplified and opaque.

As the most cost-effective cloud implementations increasingly tap into a variety of hybrid infrastructures, cloud service brokers are increasingly a viable option to consider for users looking to fully capitalize on the advantages of the cloud.

About the Author

Winston Bumpus, is currently the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the DMTF and previously served as its president for over 15 years. He is also  co-chair of the Cloud Management Working Group within the DMTF. He is co-author of the books "Common Information Model" and "The Foundations of Application Management." He has participated in the DMTF for nearly 20 years and worked on its early development of the Common Information Model (CIM) and Web Based Enterprise Management (WBEM) standards.

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