As Microsoft’s rapid release cycle begins to heat up with upcoming releases of SQL Server 2014, Windows Server 2012 R2, and System Center 2012 R2, it’s clear that the cloud is becoming an ever deeper part of Microsoft’s server line. The company is bringing cloud integration into the upcoming server products in a number of places, and if you’re one of those people who are already tired of hearing about the cloud, it’s certain that you’ll find these cloud options ever more difficult to ignore.

For example, the SQL Server 2014 backup functionality will have an integrated option to back up to Windows Azure. Likewise, the new AlwaysOn Availability Groups in SQL Server 2014 have the built-in ability to use Replicas that are in Windows Azure. This move toward the cloud is growing, and it’s certainly being driven by Microsoft’s self-proclaimed shift from a software company into a devices and services company. So far, in spite of the strong push by Microsoft and other vendors, most SQL Server professionals are pretty leery of the cloud.

Part of the problem is that there are many cloud choices. There’s the public cloud, the private cloud, and the hybrid cloud. And if that wasn't enough, there are multiple ways to implement each one. The public cloud uses a hosting infrastructure and moves the hardware and management costs to the hosting vendor—essentially transforming CapEx costs into OpEx costs.

Public Cloud Options

The public cloud offers Software-as-Service (SaaS) options (e.g., Microsoft Exchange Online, Microsoft SharePoint Online), Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) options (e.g., Windows Azure, Windows Azure SQL Database), or Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) options (e.g., Windows Azure Infrastrucutre Services, Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud, VMware’s vCloud Hybrid Service). Of these different types of public clouds, some smaller businesses have leaned toward the SaaS server offerings because of the lower complexity and initial costs compared with traditional on-premises solutions. Most midsized-to-large organizations opt for IaaS solutions when picking public cloud solutions because they offer the flexibility to extend an existing infrastructure into the cloud as needed while retaining the ability to maintain a high degree of control over that infrastructure.

Multiple Ways To Build Your Private Cloud

The private cloud has been a more appealing option for most IT pros. But there are multiple ways you can build your private cloud! You can build the private cloud out of your existing infrastructure using management tools such as System Center Virtual Machine Manager (VMM) 2012 or VMware’s vCloud Director. This is the path most businesses take as they begin to adopt the private cloud because it leverages their existing infrastructure. However, although this is certainly doable and affordable in most cases, the existing infrastructure wasn't built with the cloud in mind. Therefore, the solution might be functional but probably won't be optimal without making some key infrastructure changes—but knowing what to change can be difficult.

Other options for building the private cloud include using reference architectures like HP Department Private Cloud Reference Architecture or even by implementing private cloud-in-a-box solutions like HP's Database Consolidation Appliance for Microsoft SQL Server. The advantage of using the reference architecture or appliance alternatives is that you get to leverage the private cloud design expertise of the vendor. In these examples, Microsoft and HP engineers worked together to create system configurations that are optimized for private cloud workloads. In the case of reference architectures, the hardware vendor typically provides different sets of reference architectures for different sizes and types of workloads. Each reference architecture combines different levels of compute power and memory with networking storage configurations.

Appliances take this idea one step further by providing actual systems that can be purchased and installed on premises, essentially delivering a private cloud right out of the box. These solutions usually provide extreme scalability and built-in high availability and management using Windows Failover Clustering and System Center. In the case of the HP Database Consolidation Appliance, even though it flies in the face of conventional wisdom to combine multiple SQL Server database servers together on the same box, that is exactly what this solution is designed to do. And the supporting computing, storage, and network infrastructure is able to concurrently run hundreds of SQL Server instances with excellent response times.

Hybrid Cloud Combines Public & Private Cloud Features

As its name suggests, the hybrid cloud is a combination of the public and private cloud. The hybrid cloud solves some of the problems associated with the public and private cloud. The hybrid cloud can be used to address the scalability issues faced by the private cloud as well as the data control issues faced by the public cloud. Most hybrid cloud solution are DIY private clouds, combining your local private cloud to a public cloud using virtual networking. However, some vendors (e.g., Fujitsu, NEC) offer hybrid cloud solutions that let you combine your on-premises hardware with your back-end cloud infrastructure.

Cloud solutions aren’t for everybody, but they're continuing to grow, and it’s important to know the difference between the different cloud options available today. As Rod Trent and I discussed in our recent Cloud Computing FAQ webcast, the cloud choice often boils down to cost and control. Public cloud solutions promise to reduce costs, whereas private cloud alternatives provides more control.