Squaring the cloud

AppEngine flies the Google coop, Rackspace gets SaaS billing, and Amazon puts storage volumes into EC2. Yesterday was quite a day for cloud computing, ending with a warning that SaaS providers must adapt or be swept aside.
Written by Phil Wainewright, Contributor

Hosting your application in the cloud got a lot easier yesterday — but there are still some gaps to fill for hosted application providers. Referring to Amazon's introduction of persistent storage volumes to its EC2 cloud computing service, Rightscale CEO Thorsten Von Eicken declared "clearly the cloud has just squared in size!" I'll return to Van Eicken's posting in a moment because he does a helpful run-through of some telling use cases for EC2's new storage offering, as well as making some pretty strong claims for the significance of the announcement. But first I'd like to mention a couple of other developments.

First, there's the interesting news that Google App Engine is more open than people first imagined. Over the weekend, developer Chris Anderson — who says he'd "never touched" the Python language before — implemented AppDrop.com, an Amazon EC2 instance where developers can host applications developed with the Google App Engine SDK. Writer and programmer Andy Baio explains how it works. Meanwhile, stack-as-a-service provider CohesiveFT has introduced a similar service that allows you to build your own App Engine virtual server, but this time deploy it to the cloud platform of your choice — whether Amazon EC2 or your own VMWare, Parallels or Xen system.
These options are highly reassuring to developers wanting to use App Engine to build and host applications, but worried about lock-in. It gives them an escape route, from Google's own servers to an Amazon alternative, or even onto their own servers. Taken together with yesterday's Amazon announcement, they provide ample evidence that the cloud, as measured by the number of options available out there, is getting exponentially bigger.

That's all very well for experimentation or in-house deployments, of course, but if you're an ISV that wants to offer an application commercially as a paid service, the cloud still needs squaring. At present (with the singular exception of Amazon DevPay), you have no choice but to build and implement your own infrastructure for billing, performance monitoring, systems management and reporting, customer service and so on.

The second item of news yesterday that caught my eye therefore was the announcement of an alliance with hosting provider Rackspace by billing and customer service provider Aria Systems, whose offering I covered a couple of weeks ago. Although other aspects of service delivery management still need to be brought in, this is a welcome acknowledgement by Rackspace that ISVs who want to host their applications for delivery as a service are looking for a lot more help than they'll typically get from most hosting companies.

Such help is not readily available on Amazon EC2, although Von Eicken's company Rightscale at least helps with deploying and managing Amazon instances, as I described in a posting last November. He emailed me yesterday to alert me to the huge impact he believes Amazon's latest announcement will have, particularly on SaaS businesses:

"With the addition of the storage volumes there's no doubt in my mind anymore: the cloud adopters will have much more computing horsepower and flexibility at their fingertips than those who are still racking their own machines. Cloud computing is going to be as significant for deployment as agile is for software development. You either compute in the cloud or you'll be left behind by your competitors because they can deploy faster, better, and cheaper than you can."

His blog posting yesterday outlined some of the new capabilities that Amazon is introducing:

  • "Basically you can create storage volumes in the cloud next to the server instances you launch in the cloud. Think of having a really big SAN in the cloud in which you can create volumes of up to 1TB each with a single API call ...
  • "The feature that really makes the storage volumes sizzle is the ability to snapshot them to S3 and then create new volumes from the snapshots ... This essentially solves the whole backup issue with one simple API call ...
  • "It is now possible to host the data for a single-tenant virtual appliance on a storage volume and mount it on an instance. What's really cool is the decoupling of the data from the instance. It means that you can start a customer on a small instance and if they outgrow it, you can migrate them almost seamlessly to a large and later an x-large instance, all using the same storage volume."

The thrust of Van Eicken's line of thinking is that cloud computing may have started out looking inferior, but with the rapid evolution going on at the moment, any disadvantage will rapidly fall away. If he's right, that spells massively disruptive consequences for anyone whose livelihood depends on applications that run in a data center.

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