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Confusion Persists with Virtual Machines and Other Cloud Based Resources

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This week a conversation took an unexpected turn. “Let’s put WebSphere Portal on Microsoft’s Azure cloud solution.” It’s a good thing I keep my phone muted because the gasp I made would have been hard to miss. When it came my turn to speak I deferred saying that such a scenario would require further investigation. The fact was that I knew that such a proposition was impossible given the current state of Microsoft’s Azure platform. As I gave some thought to the statement I recognized that underlying it was a flawed understanding of how cloud based solutions differ.

The first task for those considering ‘a cloud solution’ is to understand there are not only multiple vendors offering cloud services, there are different types of clouds and the distinction is not between ‘public’ and ‘private’. This is not to say one cannot obtain services from a private (or public) cloud. Instead it is to say that whether a cloud is public or private there are distinct services offered.

In a series of articles explaining cloud computing Dustin Amrhein and Scott Quint, both from IBM observed:

Anatomy of a Cloud
Anatomy of a cloud

… cloud computing is an all-inclusive solution in which all computing resources (hardware, software, networking, storage, and so on) are provided rapidly to users as demand dictates.

The resources, or services, that are delivered are governable to ensure things like high availability, security, and quality. The key factor to these solutions is that they possess the ability to be scaled up and down, so that users get the resources they need: no more and no less.

In this regard it helps to look at three well known brands competing for customers affection: Amazon, Google, and Microsoft.  Add to these vendors the involvement of partners such as IBM and Oracle, to name a couple, and it is easy to imagine a whole new competitive landscape rich with opportunities.

Amazon, a provider of cloud based solutions since 2002, has a comprehensive set of solutions. The list of these services can be intimidating.

  • AWS “Amazon Associates Web Service” provides access to product data and e-commerce functionality.
  • CDN “Amazon CloudFront Content Delivery Network” provides a means for distributing content from S3 (Amazon’s Simple Storage Service)
  • EBS “Amazon Elastic Block Store” for persistent storage of volumes bound to EC2 (Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud).
  • S3 “Simple Storage Service” is a Web Service based storage solution. Older AMIs (Amazon Machine Images) use S3 as the storage location for boot volumes.
  • EC2 “Elastic Compute Cloud” is an implementation of Xen for delivery of private virtual machine instances based on AMIs (Amazon Machine Images).
  • VPC “Virtual Private Cloud” allows a customer to create an isolated collection of EC2 (Elastic Compute Cloud) instances accessed through a VPN from the customer site.

The effort to understand these and other services offered by Amazon is not trivial. In the case of EC2 and S3 or EBS customers have an opportunity to implement a huge array of solutions deployed to virtual machines. It is through this mechanism that IBM, Oracle, Citrix, and others have created ‘shrink wrapped’ offerings of some of their flagship products such as IBM WebSphere Portal.

More recently Google entered the cloud based solutions arena.  Compared to Amazon EC2, Google provides seamless access to their infrastructure such that scalability is easy to accomplish but the range of applications is significantly restricted. For example the AppEngine can only respond to HTTP requests or scheduled background tasks. There is support for both Java and Python but there are restrictions here as well. For example the JRE Class White List defines a subset of available classes found in the JRE (Java Runtime Edition – Standard Edition). This does not mean that Google’s AppEngine is not a prudent or optimal choice. Customers must understand their present and future needs as completely as possible if they hope to make a wise choice.

Similarly, Microsoft has offered the Azure platform. This environment is bound to evolve rapidly as Microsoft vigorously enters the cloud based service provider market. This offering bears greater resemblance to Google’s AppEngine than Amazon’s EC2.  The chief benefit is also the chief liability of this platform. That is: customer’s will be bound to the Microsoft .NET framework and related tools such as Visual Studio.  One succinct description of Azure is found at Wikipedia:

The Azure Services Platform uses a specialized operating system, called Windows Azure, to run its “fabric layer” — a cluster hosted at Microsoft’s data centers that manages computing and storage resources of the computers and provisions the resources (or a subset of them) to applications running on top of Windows Azure. Windows Azure has been described as a “cloud layer” on top of a number of Windows Server systems, which use Windows Server 2008 and a customized version of Hyper-V, known as the Windows Azure Hypervisor to provide virtualization of services.

Understanding the nature and scope of cloud based services should be the task of any technology leader and the sooner that understanding is achieved, the better.

Written by David Wilkerson

April 10, 2010 at 1:57 pm

Posted in Cloud

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