Cloud Computing Simplified (Part I)

Gartner projected that cloud computing will continue to pick up momentum next year as it cements its position as one of the top four technologies that companies would invest in. Earlier this past November, Gartner projected that cloud computing would (continue to) be a revolution much like e-business was, rather than just being a new technology added to the stack of IT arsenal.

What is cloud computing? A tech-challenged friend of mine asked one time. As I took a deep breathe before I let out the loads of knowledge that I have accumulated reading about, teaching about and working with cloud applications in its various layers, I froze for a second as I did not know how to explain it in layman’s terms. Of course if I were talking to an IT person I would get away with talking about the mouthful acronyms of ?aaS (where ? is any letter in the alphabet). However, when the person opens the discussion asking “Is my company’s website a SaaS?”, “Is my company’s website a cloud? The cloud? Running in a cloud?”, it hit me maybe there was a reason why every book I pick up or article I come across that talks about the cloud, includes a first paragraph that always provides a disclaimer that goes like this “The first thing about cloud computing is that it has many definitions, and no one can define it precisely, but we will give it a try in this book”. Maybe that is how I should start every attempt to define the cloud to someone else?

Before I answered my friend’s question, I phased out for a little bit as a big blackboard suddenly appeared in front of me with humongous set of UML diagrams (they were called UML but they included every possible shape and a verbal disclaimer for getting away from the standard diagrams by the architect drawing on the board). Those diagrams were so big and complex that people moved away from typing notes to taking pictures of the board. Including “high resolution” as an important requirement of a smart phone  before purchasing it, became an important differentiator between competitor phones (the iPhone won the war for me as it has the best resolution as of the time of this typing). High resolution was important because you see everyone in the room shouldering each other at the end of the meeting as they take a picture of the complex diagram using their phone. None of that stuck out in my mind, as I was phasing out, as much as the big cloud diagram drawn to the side of the big complex picture. That component was always known by everyone as the Cloud, and it always meant “everything else”, “something else”, “anything”, “everything”, “something”, “I have no freaking clue what there is”, etc. It was the piece that no one cared about, it was just sitting there encompassing a big piece of the entire system, yet, it was of less importance (apparently) as everything else on the board, thus earning its “cloudy” scribble to the side of the board. OK, so the Cloud is something useless that no one pays attention to? That may be a cop-out if my friend hears those words out of my mouth after a pause.

All of a sudden, something else happened. As I was dazing off, I started thinking to myself: Well, wait a minute. Did we change our definition of that little useless cloud drawn on the board? Or is it really useless? To be able to answer that question, I had to understand why the hell we resorted to drawing “everything else”, “something else”, etc. as an isolated cloud. Maybe it wasn’t useless. Maybe it was extremely important but irrelevant. Which is a big difference. Sometimes it is good to have a big chunk of your system abstracted away in its own little cloud shape being irrelevant to any other changes you make to your system. After all, if every change you make affects everything else in the system including your infrastructure, there is a big problem in your system’s design to begin with. So, maybe it was a good thing that architects had a big cloud sitting off to the side. As a matter of fact, the bigger that cloud that is not affected and does not affect your changes to the rest of the system the better! OK, so now I have solved one mystery. The cloud is the part of your system (infrastructure, platform, and software) that is abstracted from you because your system was designed correctly in such a way to have its component independent of each other. This way, you can ultimately concentrate on the business problem at hand, rather than all the overhead that is there just as an enabler rather than being fundamental to the business at its core.

But wait! If architects have been defining clouds on their boards for such a long period of time, what is so new about it? The short answer is: nothing is new about the cloud! The cloud is not something that just popped up. It has been around for a long time! From clusters of mainframes in the 60s and 70s, to GRID computing, the cloud has been there for a long time. The reason why it was picked up by the professional world just recently was due to the giant improvements in virtualization management tools that allowed the customer to easily manage the complexity of clouds. OK, I am getting somewhere, but I still haven’t gotten to my friend’s questions. Maybe I should continue to go deeper to find more answers first before I unload my knowledge, or lack-thereof! Going back to the board. Was every cloud really a cloud? After all, sometimes an architect draws a cloud around a piece or a component that she doesn’t understand. So, there has to be a difference between the cloud that a knowledgeable architect draws versus someone else that had it mistaken for another UML diagram component.  So, what defines a cloud? Well, it is an abstracted part of the system. It may encompass infrastructure, platform and/or software pieces.

That is the easy part. Here comes the more technical part. The cloud provides infrastructure, platform and software on an as-needed basis (service). It gives you more resources when you need them, AND it takes away extra resources you are not using (yes, the cloud is not for the selfish of us). To be able to call it a form of Utility Computing (where you pay only for the resources you use), an additional cost factor is associated with the resources you use on an hourly basis (or resource basis). Yes, if it is free, then it is not the cloud. No place for socialists on the cloud. We will skip this argument of paid versus free because you will tell me that many cloud-based applications are available for free, and I will tell you that nothing is free because those same applications provide a free version (which is just a honeypot for businesses) and the paid version (which is where businesses need to end up just to match the capabilities of their in-house software). The cloud may be free for individuals like me and you who don’t care about up-time and reliability, but I am focusing my discussion here on businesses (after all, an individual will not have their own data center, or require scalability, etc.)  So, I win the argument, and we move on!

Another condition is for all those resources to be available via TCP/IP based requests (iSCSI or iFC for hardware, web-services API calls for platform and software resources). It is important that requests and responses to cloud’s resources go on the web, otherwise you cannot scale up to other data centers sitting somewhere else. The cloud is scalable (“infinite” resources), DR (disaster recovery) ready, FA (fail-over) ready, and has a very HA (high availability). The last three characteristics are made possible by a few technology solutions that sit on top of the cloud such as virtualization, although virtualization is not a necessary component in a cloud due to the use of commodity computers factor which is to be discussed below. With virtualization management tools, DR – for applications only, FA and HA are provided out of the box,  DR for databases is made possible by replication (and acceleration and de-duplication techniques sped up the process across physical LANs) tools. Scalability is provided by the SOA (service oriented architecture) characteristics of the cloud of its independent and stateless services. Another component that is essential to defining what a cloud is, is the use of commodity computers. It is essential because single CPU power is not relevant anymore as long as  you have an infinite pool of your average joe-CPU. Google builds its own commodity computers in-house (although no one knows the configurations of such computers), and it is believed that Google has up to 1,000,000 commodity computers powering its giant cloud. If the cloud service provider is using powerful servers instead of commodity computers, that is an indication that they don’t have enough computers to keep their promise of scaling up for you. The reason why both properties cannot co-exist is because if the provider can have “unlimited” powerful servers, that implies that to offset their cost (especially cooling) they would have to provide the service to you for extremely high prices, offsetting the benefit of moving to the cloud versus having your own data center. Many people also believe the cloud to be public (meaning that your application will be running as a virtual machine right next to your competitor’s on the same physical machine with a low probability – albeit bigger than 0%).

Many companies choose to run their own “cloud” data center (private), which theoretically violates a few of the concepts we defined above (cost per usage, unlimited scalability). That is why some don’t consider private clouds to be clouds at all. However, to their dislikes, private clouds have dominated the early market as companies have bought into the cloud concept but they still fear that it uses too many new technologies, which makes it susceptible to early security breaches and problems. Amazon had a major outage in the East region in Virginia toward the end of 2009 (which violates the guarantee that your services are always available as they are replicated across separate availability regions). So, we know what private clouds (internal data centers designed with all the properties of a cloud minus the cost per usage and unlimited resources), and what public clouds are (gmail anyone?). What if you want a combination of both? Sure, no problem, says the cloud. You have the hybrid cloud (using a combination of private clouds for your internal, business critical applications that do not require real time scalability to public services on public clouds where you push your applications that require the highest availability and scalability (Take Walmart’s web site around the holidays for example). This is going to be the future of the cloud as there are always going to be applications that do not need the power of the cloud such as email (does not need to scale infinitely in real time), HR, financial applications, etc. There is a fourth kind which is a virtual cloud. This is having the advantage of both worlds (public resources but private physical data centers). You have access to a public cloud, but your own secure isolated vLAN that you can access via VPN over HTTP (IPSec). The virtual cloud will guarantee that no other company’s applications will be run on the same physical hardware as your company’s. Your internal applications will connect to your other services sitting on a public cloud via secure channels and dedicated infrastructure (on the public cloud).

If you are confused about how applications (for various companies) can be running on the same physical machine and why in hell you would want to do that, check out my two series articles about virtualization.

— To be continued here

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One Response to “Cloud Computing Simplified (Part I)”

  1. IT Forecast: Cloudy! « Moe's Blog Says:

    […] up steam (and moist). I already covered the essentials of cloud computing in two separate posts (start here). Like I did mention in my earlier posts, it is not a new technology or anything innovative. Cloud […]

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