Tuesday, October 09, 2007

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.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Be Like Mike

Based upon the title of this blog entry, and further based upon the fact that I live in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, you may be inclined to think I am referring to North Carolina's favorite son, Michael Jordan. Many of us aspire to “be like Mike” - dominant in our field of endeavor. In this case, however, I am not referring to Mr. Jordan, but instead I am writing about another famous Mike that is equally dominant in his vocation – the vaunted Mike Rosoft, the top player in the software game.

I am writing about Mike today because I was reminded of the pending growth in new application revenue that Mike is soon to realize by a just published blog entry by Bruce Richardson, the Chief Research Officer of AMR Research. It seems that Mike is about to get even more aggressive in the applications space, and he possesses a considerable competitive advantage over the rest of the field – far greater than the advantage Mr. Jordan brought to his dominance of the NBA.

You see, Mike Rosoft not only gets paid on the price of admission to the game (the application license), but he also gets paid on all of the concessions because he owns the arena where the games are played (the platform). And in his arena, he sets all of the rules of the game such that he has an enormous advantage over the competitors. He knows the location of all of the wet spots on the floor that will slip up the competition and land them on their ass, looking and feeling foolish for taking such a spill. He turns off the air conditioning in the guest locker room so the visiting team does not benefit from refreshment during halftime. He generates white noise from several unknown locations in the stands such that communications between the coach and the players gets confused. Yes, competing with Mike in his arena is a daunting task. The solution? Get your own arena. By the way, many of the best building materials are free.

What in the world am I talking about? Microsoft has a huge advantage in the applications space because they only deliver their applications on their platform. This approach cuts their R&D expense and customer service expense in half compared with application providers that attempt to deliver on every platform. But Linux coupled with hypervisor technology such as that offered by VMware is about to change all of the rules of engagement in the application sale. Application providers can wrap their application up with Just Enough OS (JeOS) to optimize application performance and deliver a complete experience to their customers in the form of a virtual appliance. No more “slipping on the wet spot” (an undocumented “feature” in the OS or a maintenance “patch” that just happens to conflict with your application), or “sweating in the overheated locker room” (watching application performance slide because the OS is consuming all of the hardware resources), or “screaming to be heard from the sidelines over the roar of the arena” (being pre-empted on application calls by a cacophony of OS cross talk). In your arena, you set the rules.

Linux and open source infrastructure provide a terrific set of building materials for your application “arena.” The hypervisor allows the customer to continue to exercise their preference for hardware and system infrastructure. Are you ready to “be like Mike?” I think you will like the way the outcome looks on your income statement.