Friday, October 24, 2008

Can You See the Clouds from Windows?

During the course of our webinar entitled "The Pragmatist's Guide to Cloud Computing: 5 Steps to Real ROI," several of the attendees submitted questions regarding the status of Windows as an environment for cloud applications. In a partial answer to the question, Jeff Barr, a speaker during the webinar and a member of the Amazon Web Services team, responded that a beta implementation of Windows for EC2 was now available. The problem with the notion of “Windows for EC2” is that it perpetuates the broken, legacy model of tying your application to the infrastructure upon which it runs.

In the legacy model, applications became artificially tied to the physical server upon which they ran, and server utilization was low because it is very difficult to run multiple applications on a single instance of a general purpose operating system. The reason it is difficult to run multiple applications on a single instance of a general purpose operating system is because each application has unique needs which conflict or compete with the unique needs of other applications. Virtualization technology, such as that provided by VMware or Citrix with XenServer, breaks the bond of the application to a physical server by placing a layer of software, called a hypervisor, on the physical hardware beneath the operating system instances that support each application. The applications are “isolated” from one another inside virtual machines, and this isolation eliminates the conflicts.

Amazon embraces this virtualization model by using Xen to enable their Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) service. So what's the problem? If the OS instances are not tied to the physical servers any longer (indeed you do not even know which physical system is running your application on EC2, nor do you need to know), why am I raising a hullabaloo over a “broken model?” The reason this new model of Windows for EC2 is broken is because your application is now artificially coupled to EC2. When you begin with a Windows Amazon Machine Image (AMI), install your application on top, configure-test, configure-test, configure-test, configure-test, configure-test to get it right, and then save the tested configuration as a new AMI, the only place you can run this tested configuration of your application is on Amazon's EC2. If you want to run the application on another virtualized cloud, say maybe one provided by RackSpace, or Terremark, or GoGrid, or even your own internal virtualized cloud of systems, you have to install the application yet again, configure-test, configure-test, configure-test, configure-test, configure-test to get it right again, and then save the tested configuration on the other cloud service. Why don't we just stop the madness and admit that binding the OS to the physical infrastructure upon which it runs is a flawed approach when applications run as virtual machine images (or virtual appliances) atop a hypervisor or virtualized cloud of systems like EC2?

The reason that we are continuing the madness is because madness is all we have ever known. Everyone knows that you bind an operating system to a physical host. Operating systems are useless unless they bind to something, and until the emergence of the hypervisor as the layer that binds to the physical host, the only sensible approach for operating system distribution was to bind it to the physical host. When you buy hardware, you make it useful by installing an operating system as step one. But if the operating system that you install as step one in the new virtualized world is a hypervisor in lieu of a general purpose operating system, how do we get applications to be supported on this new type of host? Here's your answer -- what we previously knew as the general purpose operating system now needs to be transformed to just enough operating system (JeOS or “juice”) to support the application, and it should bind to the application NOT THE INFRASTRUCTURE.

Virtualization enables the separation of the application from the infrastructure upon which it runs – making possible a level of business agility and dynamicism previously unthinkable. Imagine being able to run your applications on-demand in any data-center around the world that exposes the hypervisor (any hypervisor) as the runtime environment. Privacy laws prevent an application supporting medical records in Switzerland from running in an Amazon datacenter in Belgium? No problem, run the application in Switzerland. Need to run the same application in Belgium in support of a new service being offered there next month? No problem, run it on Amazon's infrastructure in Belgium. The application has to support the covert operations associated with homeland security and it cannot be accessed via any Internet connection? No problem, provide it as a virtual appliance for the NSA to run on their private network. Just signed a strategic deal with RackSpace that provides an extraordinary level of service that Amazon is not willing to embrace at this time? No problem, shut down the instances running on EC2 and spin them up at RackSpace. All of this dynamic capability is possible without the tedious cycle of configure-test -- if we will simply bind the operating system to the application in order to free it from the infrastructure and let it fly into the clouds.

So why doesn't Microsoft simply allow Windows to become an application support infrastructure, aka JeOS, instead of a general purpose operating system that is bound to the infrastructure? Because JeOS disrupts their licensing and distribution model. Turning a ship as big as the Microsoft Windows licensing vessel might require a figurative body of water bigger than the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans combined. But if they don't find a way to turn the ship, they may find that their intransigence becomes the catalyst for ever increasing deployments of Linux and related open source technology that is unfettered by the momentum of a mighty business model. Folks with valuable .Net application assets might begin to consider technology such as Novell's mono project as a bridge to span their applications into the clouds via Linux.

I can tell you that there are lots of folks asking lots of questions about how to enable Windows applications in the “cloud.” I do not believe the answer is “Windows for EC2” plus “Windows for GoGrid” plus “Windows for RackSpace” plus “Windows for [insert your data-center cloud name here].” If Microsoft does not find a way to turn the licensing ship and embrace JeOS, the market will eventually embrace alternatives that provide the business agility that virtualization and cloud computing promises.

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