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The cloud space has become a somewhat chaotic battleground of late. Everyone seems to playing in it, with technology they say is designed to meet its needs – which sound simple but become complicated with every layer.

Enter the middle man – whoever, of whatever that may be (broker, peering community, service catalogue?). And just when you think you have heard about them all, I am going to tell you about another, which is also designed for - and proclaims to make - purchasing in the Cloud much easier.

Contrail is an EU-backed project aimed at the SME cloud market. Described as the European Cloud Federation Framework, its goal is to provide users with a blueprint for cloud deployment based around industry standards, as well as a management service that helps users not only select a provider (ie the service catalogue) but helps you deploy and standardize applications, monitor service delivery and monitor SLAs.

Nine organizations are currently part of the Contrail group, which recently published results of the project (now in stage 1.3) in Rome, looking at cloud federation, Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) and Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS).

The members are: the French national institute for research in computer science and control INRIA, the Italian National Research Council, Netherlands-based computer consultancy Genias Genelux, HP Italy, grid and cloud company Constellation Technologies, the science and Technology Facilities Council, telecommunications player Tiscali, the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, computer science research organization XLAB, Berlin state research organization Konrad-Zuse-Zentrum and French-based open-sourced software company Linagora.

Version 1.3 of Contrail focusses on security, with provisions for single sign on and external identity providers. It also offers its SLA manager on a provider level and a Virtual Infrastructure Network aimed at IT service companies, private and public clouds and cloud brokers.

This a brief run down. What I really want to get to is what Contrail hopes to achieve.

I caught up with Christine Morin, the coordinator of the project, to find out more.

How Contrail works
Contrail was funded under the European Commission’s FP7 program back in 2009 with a vision of being able to proliferate different cloud providers by building a service that sits on top of these clouds.

What has been created is essentially a new technology, with help from external contributors – some of these from the open standards community – including OpenStack and OpenNebula.

“Some communities also start from academic work, such as Compass, one of the services we developed at the start of Contrail, our Platform-as-a-Service policy tool,” Morin says.

“With all of these we work with different standardization – the idea is for a user to be able to easily deploy on different providers, so we have to conform to different standards.”

When choosing what standards to work with, Morine says the group will often choose more than one, but these have to be the most commonly used with the idea that what comes out of Contrail will be able to more widely used across the Cloud industry.

So far, Contrail has developed a federation service that allows users to interact directly with the services they may use. “This service will find the cloud provider most appropriate for dealing with the user request for the application,” Morin says.

But she says Contrail is much more than a cloud brokerage. “It doesn’t stop after selection of a cloud provider – contrail is what deploys your application, then monitors and manages it. We can also deploy on several clouds for a single application, taking advantage of service provided by different cloud providers. We have SLA management to describe the service’s properties and condition once the SLA has been agreed between the customer and federation and enforcement for this. We do the brokering in a way but we deploy, monitor and manage the agreement between the user and the federation,” Morin says.

Essentially, Contrail acts as a middle man in this relationship between cloud provider and cloud user, which I imagine could be helpful for an SME wanting to avoid hiring skilled staff to look after cloud management, or smaller company with little IT resources.

The project is currently going for another round of funding with the European Commission, but Morine’s real hope is that it becomes a force unto its own, paving the way for a new European or global cloud market.

She says there are too many standards right now around cloud computing, and this makes it difficult for people purchasing services to decide on cloud services or components for their cloud computing software stack. The question is will Contrail just add to the mix that is out there now commercially? Or will it confuse things even further? Or who knows, being EU backed with a policy towards open standards, it could help push this smaller end of the market further into the Cloud.