Thursday, April 17, 2008

Cloud Computing Casts Shadow on Walled Gardens

As a technology provider that helps application companies embrace cloud computing by virtualizing the applications to run on any cloud, I was a bit disappointed with Google's appengine announcement. It appears that Google is embracing the “walled garden” approach of and Microsoft instead of the cloud approach of Amazon. I believe that walled gardens will ultimately be overshadowed by clouds because you cannot achieve webscale computing if every application has to run on a server owned by Google.

Historically, Google has been very good about providing APIs that enable applications to access its web services independent of the computer on which they run. This is an important concept because it is often the case that an application needs to run on a particular network or network segment in order to preserve some critical aspect of performance or security. It is also important because it provides developers with the broadest choice of system and programming tools when developing or maintaining their applications. If you must program the application in the Python implementation specified by Google and run it on a Google server in order to take advantage of services like BigTable and Sawzall, a huge segment of the application market has just been eliminated from consideration (note that it is unclear to me at this time if Big Table and Sawzall can be accessed independent of appengine).

Why not simply expose a virtual machine API (such as Amazon Machine Image) along with the API for the web services (such as Amazon's S3, SQS, etc.)? Application instances that require minimal latency to Google services are provisioned as virtualized appliances on a Google server. For applications that need to run on a different network, you can provision the same system definition to that network while accessing the web services over the Internet. Write the program in any language you choose. With any set of system components that you choose.

The problem with walled gardens is that they ultimately restrict the growth of the market. While it is true that an attractive and well manicured walled garden will result in asymetrically large economic rent for the owner of the garden (witness Microsoft), the size of the market is nonetheless constrained. It seems to me that Google would reap the greatest benefit from maximizing the market for cloud applications quickly – independent of their ability to collect an asymetrically large portion of the rent from that market. Even their marketing of the current implementation of appengine indicates this hypothesis is correct – it is free. Success with cloud computing will no doubt lead to a decline in the value of the Microsoft system software franchise (the ultimate walled garden). Why not accelerate that decline with broad market capability instead of yet another walled garden (YAWG)?

Let me provide a concrete example. rPath was approached by a SaaS application provider to help them release their on-demand application as an on-premise application – without sacrificing management control of the system software. They want on-premise capability in order to meet the data security requirements of a certain segment of the market which they have been unable to penetrate with their SaaS offering. Their current application runs on Microsoft server technology, but it is written in Java so skipping out of the Microsoft walled garden was pretty trivial. We provided them with a virtualized implementation of their application, and we demonstrated how it could run on a local network atop a hypervisor, or as a variable cost implementation on Amazon's elastic compute cloud (EC2). Their reaction was so positive that they are now planning to gradually migrate their entire infrastructure from Microsoft to virtual infrastructure in order to seamlessly deliver the application via SaaS, variable cost cloud (Amazon), and local network (virtual appliance). Without changing their preference for programming language. Without sacrificing control of the system software layer.

To be fair to Google, appengine is a beta service. I have no doubt that they made compromises in architecture in order to get the service out the door more quickly. I hope they follow Amazon's lead and expose all of their great services as true web services while enabling any application to run close to those services via a simple virtualization spec such as Amazon's AMI. The faster we take the market to cloud computing, the sooner we can kill off the walled gardens through webscale shadows that deprive them of economic sunlight.

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At 10:18 AM, Blogger Troy Tolle said...

I am in agreement here. I was excited to see Google jump in offering a computing infrastructure for their users, but I was disappointed that we could not use more than python. We have been using Amazon Web Services for 2 years for DigitalChalk and I was hoping to see some interesting alternatives pop up from Google. I think Google does have the right idea of handing scale transparently for the user. This is a great plus and a move that is welcomed but I would like to see other languages such as PHP and Java supported.

At 4:47 PM, Blogger xiaowenx said...

I think for Google, the tradeoff is between flexibility and usability. On the one hand, the walled garden approach takes away flexibility by restricting users to one specific development environment. On the other hand, Google´s approach makes it easier for users to get started extremely fast--code to that standard and publish. I think Google are banking on the fact that more and more new programs are written in interpreted languages such as Python. For these people, this would be an easier platform to publish to.

Of course, as you say, this is still a beta; so I think it is likely Google will publish other platforms such as one that supports Ruby on rails. Further down the line, they could provide a way for users to create their own platforms and share them, which would make it very similar to EC2.


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