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20081203 Wednesday December 03, 2008

Can We Just Call It "Flex Computing"?

The moniker "cloud computing" has been overloaded to mean to so many things, it's beginning to mean nothing. When someone refers to it generically, you have to ask them to dismbiguate; which of these are they referring to?

  1. IT infrastructure offered as a services
  2. Hosted application functionality
  3. A virtualized server deployment
InfoWorld wrote What cloud computing really means last spring to help clarify the distinctions but still, I often have to stop folks when the use the C-word just make sure we're talking about the same things.

Examples of the first definition are services like Amazon Web Services (AWS) or GoGrid. They provide metered virtual machines, you pay for what you use and have full access (root) on the machines while you use them. Additional goodies such as load balanced clusters, storage facilities and so forth are part of the deal too. Capacity can be scaled up or down on demand and typically, in very rapid fashion. When Peter Wayner reviewed these guys last summer in InfoWorld, he was enamored with the GUI front ends. Call me old fashioned (or a dyed in the wool geek) but unless they're really saving me a lot of time, I have an aversion to the slick GUI's. For his part, Wayner complained about the AWS command line utilities. Actually, when I use AWS, I use a GUI for an overview of running instances, it's a Firefox plugin (Elasticfox) but what I really like about AWS is programmatic access. Integrating application deployment with command and control functionality is very powerful, my tool of choice is boto, a Python API for AWS.

The second definition refers to hosted application functionality, in years gone by they were referred to as Application Service Providers (ASP). The more modern label is Software as a Service (SaaS). However, these services have to provide more than a console for functionality, they have to provide web service API's that enable them to be integrated into other applications. SalesForce.com was an early leader in this space (remember the red cross-outs, "No Software"), their example and the proliferation of RSS is really want inspired the proliferation of APIs and mashups we see today.

The last definition refers to VMWare, Xen and so forth. By themselves, those aren't really cloud computing in my book. However, you can use them to create your own "private cloud" with tools like Enomaly and Eucalyptus. This is an area of great interest to me.

In his review, Wayner pointed out how very different all of the services are. I don't know why he included Google's App Engine at all in his write-up. Don't misunderstand, GAE is a great service but it more closely resembles an application container than infrastructure services.

I'm imagining IT infrastructure management interfaces coalescing around standards (de-facto ones, not ones fashioned out of IETF meetings). Eucalyptus is a good discussion point. Eucalyptus provides an EC2 "work-alike" interface on top of a Xen virtual server platform. So picture this: if the Rackspaces, ServePaths, Server Beaches and LayeredTechs of this world were to provide a compatible interfaces built on top of Eucalyptus, buying compute power by the hour would become more like buying gasoline. There may be pros and cons to this station or that but fundamentally, if you don't like the pumps at one gas station or the prices are too high, you can go to the gas station across the street. Given compatible interfaces, management of the infrastructure, be it with boto, Elasticfox or using services such as RightScale can be as dynamic as the server deployments in those clouds. Such a compute market place would unleash new rounds of innovation as it eases starting up and scaling online services.

The Eucalyptus folks will be the first to fess up that their project is more academic in nature that industrial strength. However, it is the harbinger of AWS as a standard. Yes, I'm referring to AWS as a standard because of the level of adoption its enjoyed, the comprehensive set of APIs it provides and the rich ecosystem around it. What I foresee is that the first vendor to embrace and commoditize a standard interface for infrastructure management changes the game. The game becomes one of a meta-cloud because computing capacity will be truly fluid, flexibly shrinking and growing with hosted clouds, private clouds and migrating between clouds.


( Dec 03 2008, 10:44:46 PM PST ) Permalink
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