While cloud architectures do have significant advantages in improving resource utilization and reducing costs, historically they've had two substantive drawbacks: First, they tend to reduce administrators' visibility. Second, the reliability of service cannot easily be guaranteed, especially for customers whose operations demand near-perpetual uptime.

This morning, telecommunications firm Alcatel-Lucent - the inheritor of Bell Labs' intellectual property - presented a complete value proposition for a product that is still in development. Called CloudBand, it proposes a cloud provision model for carrier-grade services. Think of a cloud that provides live video for thousands of customers simultaneously, and you get the idea.

Rather than concentrating on delivering functionality, such as applications (SaaS) or computing infrastructure (IaaS), CloudBand would focus on networking. It might not be a cloud the way we currently understand it, where processing power and storage capacity are leased. But there are three components to the modern data network, not two, and the third is the interconnection layer, or what the OSI model would call "Level 3."

"The carrier cloud is based on the service provider's greatest asset: the network and its carrier-grade attributes," reads an Alcatel-Lucent white paper published today (PDF available here). "Carrier-grade networks are known for their high reliability and availability and their fast fault recovery."

The paper cites the fact that typical cloud providers cannot provide very high service-level guarantees, by virtue of the fact that cloud architectures often rely upon implementation of commodity-grade parts that are prone to failure. In one sense, the whole point of cloud architectures was to enable businesses to use the components they had, including the cheap ones, in a collective pool that minimizes the impact of low performance and faults. But when a business leases cloud services in order to provide cloud services to its own customers, it passes on those lower service level guarantees to those customers.

Citing surveys that it commissioned, A-L is saying that among some 3,886 influential IT employees, including executives, on seven continents (Antarctica was not available), 46% of respondents report being at least annoyed by the latencies they experience from their cloud services, while 36% report that their service-level agreements (SLAs) with their cloud providers are essentially meaningless.

This is where Alcatel-Lucent is making its distinction: It seeks to build a cloud network capable of offering carrier-grade service guarantees. The company suggests that cloud service resellers can recoup the premiums they'll likely pay for this service, by offering premium-tier service with higher SLA levels to their own customers in turn.

"Moving to the carrier cloud allows service providers to virtualize and transform their operations to become more efficient and agile while reducing costs," the company contends. "It also puts them in a better position to increase revenue by meeting growing enterprise demand for highly available cloud services with end-to-end performance guaranteed."