A Walk in the Clouds
Yesterday, Google and IBM announced that they plan to invest $30 million to promote the concept of “cloud” computing. In the coming months, I believe we will see more and more infrastructure companies follow the Amazon lead and announce or deliver “cloud” services similar to the Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2). The timing for these initiatives is right because high performing hypervisor technology from companies like VMware and XenSource (Amazon uses Xen to enable EC2) makes it possible to separate the infrastructure definition from the application server definition. The infrastructure is the “cloud” and the application server definition is a virtual appliance or a Virtual Appliance Network (VAN).
I believe the availability of high quality, low cost infrastructure provided as an on-demand, variable cost service with no restrictive assumptions regarding the application server platform (such as those required by Sun's languishing grid compute offering with its 198 page developer guide) is going to dramatically improve the quality and cost of server applications.
The quality will be higher because application companies will no longer invest huge portions of their research and development budget slogging through the “muck” (Jeff Bezos' term) of infrastructure planning (multi-platform porting/testing, SaaS enablement build-out, custom infrastructure deployment at customer sites, etc.). Instead, they can focus on application features that improve the value of the application for the customer. The cost will be lower because customers can “right scale” their infrastructure for the basic needs of their business with an ability to “expand” into the cloud for the high demand cases. For some customers, this will mean zero investment in fixed assets. For others, some mix of on-premise plus “cloud” capacity will be correct.
There are still problems to be solved, but I believe they are manageable. For example, there is currently no well defined way for a VAN of virtual servers (security, web, app, data, etc.) that form a complete application solution to be defined in a manner that makes the VAN completely portable across “clouds” while preserving the “rules” that govern the interrelationships among the various virtual appliances in the VAN. The OVF specification and the capability in the rBuilder platform from my company rPath are both early steps in the right direction, but there is still much work to be done in this area of “contextualization” and cloud portability. Eliminating the “seams” between clouds will be a key piece of work that enables the benefits of this new model.
In spite of the barriers, new solutions will still arrive. Just today, KnowledgeTree, a small, innovative company based out of South Africa, announced the availability of their on-demand offering, KnowledgeTreeLive, which utilizes Amazon's EC2 for application availability. KnowledgeTree has architected the solution using multiple virtual appliances running on EC2 in a manner that provides high availability and data protection for the customer's document management solution. Their only “infrastructure” investment was the “brain power” to design the solution. No more playing around in the “muck” for KnowledgeTree or their customers. Sounds like a “walk in the clouds” is going to be good for all of us.