Solutions provider takeaway: Cloud storage can be a good short- and long-term option for your customers. Cloud storage services offer several backup options, including mobile device synchronization or onetime projects and, ultimately, data portability.
Strategies for getting people into clouds
In reality, many of your people are already using applications that have leanings in the cloud; perhaps a few well-placed memos and services could get your staff thinking about clouds and their potential benefits to the enterprise.
Let's start with a little of what's happening under the hood in the Apple MobileMe and the Microsoft My Phone services. The big selling point of both is the constant and convenient backup of smartphones. With many people having upward of 1,000 contacts in their address book, the loss of the use of a smart phone could be devastating. As illustrated by an application from PocketMac Corp., MobileMe can also be used as a demilitarized zone for programs to transfer data back and forth in a secure way. In this example, the PocketMac folks rely on the BlackBerry or Nokia phone to synchronize with Mac Mail and then upload to MobileMe. Now, with a database storing the address book information, they can harvest that data to synchronize with applications such as Salesforce, Meeting Maker, Lotus Notes, Entourage 2004/2008 and others. All in all, it's an interesting way to solve an address book synchronization problem, with the additional benefit of forcing the backup of a mobile device to a cloud storage service.
So, while backup of the Windows Mobile device is the primary selling point of Microsoft's My Phone service, this cloud storage solution will also more than likely morph into a similar service, especially considering how Microsoft has already added in several connectors to social networking services such as Facebook, Flickr and MySpace. This type of service also gives us a hint as to how various platforms will leverage one another. In the case of the My Phone service, it's considerably easier to use a full keyboard to modify address-book entries or groom a music or picture collection. Use the cloud to do large modifications, while the mobile platform becomes the ubiquitous extension into the cloud. Not to mention it's a pretty handy way of moving that huge address book to your new phone.
We previously mentioned that the Amazon Simple Storage Service (S3) service had a stealthy beginning, since some of the very first apps for it were automated backup systems for road warriors. Jungle Disk, Brackup and Duplicity are a few that stand out, but backing up to the cloud has become a necessary task now being offered by ISPs all over the U.S. The result is that being able to back up regardless of your location (as long as you have an Internet connection) has removed some of the pain of the task and seems to be getting more and more users to actually back up their systems. It's no wonder that traditional backup applications such as those from Paragon Software have shifted direction to embrace the cloud.
We've already mentioned SalesForce a couple of times, and while these folks certainly started in the customer relationship management (CRM) game, they have recently tossed their hat into the world of clouds. So instead of just providing CRM, Salesforce.com is now providing the ability to host custom applications for its customers. The same applications can now take advantage of the direct (and secure) connections into their legacy CRM data store already in place.
Another strategy that was used by the people at the New York Times is to leverage the cloud for short-term or onetime projects. A good analogy is renting a car rather than buying one if you're going to need it only for a couple of weeks. Clouds can be very similar to a rental car agency, in that you can rent cloud service for a short period for specific projects. You could also use it to do a longer "test drive" of a model you're interested in. The analogy also works for variable-duration rentals in that longer duration normally means a lower cost per day. For instance, you negotiate to take a portion of SAP out for a test drive and you drop it into the cloud for the 90-day test drive. No fussing around losing several days while IT spins up a test machine for you, and if you don't like it, just let the cloud vendor blow it away when you're done. If you already have other modules in the cloud, connections become quite a bit easier, even on a temporary basis.
So why not take this concept a whole lot further? The VMware folks have a repository on their site that has a truly staggering number of VMware appliances available for you to test drive. Think of a new-car lot open 24/7 with thousands of different models ready for you to take home and try out for a period. The big selling point is that you don't have to struggle setting up the environment just to find yourself with only a couple days left in the trial period. It's all ready to go: Just drop it into a cloud or a VMware system and turn it on. Everything is preconfigured and ready for you to explore the appliance.
A fabulous example of "traveling clouds" arose when the Microsoft Unified Communications folks came over to show off their latest wares for the InfoWorld editors during the summer of 2007. Considering that the entire constellation of servers for this demo required five Windows servers, with one requiring a 64-bit OS, this was a pretty tall order to spin up on short notice. In this case, the product manager hopped on a plane with a big USB hard drive and quickly spun up a preconfigured Microsoft UC constellation consisting of the following:
- Active Directory server with a certificate authority setup
- SQL server for storage
- Exchange server for email
- SharePoint server
- File server
- SIP Gateway (an appliance, so not a VM in this case)
Since the whole smash was set up to talk over the virtual network (i.e., isolated), we really only had to change a single IP address on the Exchange server for external connectivity. So what would have taken quite a few days to set up before we could even see the functionality instead became an afternoon install and a full demo the next day. It was especially useful when the Interop iLabs folks were able to use the "tweaked" virtual machines for a live demonstration at the Interop Las Vegas trade show. Keep firmly in mind that this trick only works if the external USB disk is formatted NTFS to get past the 4 GB file-size limitations that come with the default FAT formatting typical of these drives. (Since many virtual machines are several gigabytes in size, Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud system [and other cloud vendors] allow for shipping of large USB drives to them for local mounting over their internal networks. This local mounting tends to have special pricing, making the setting up of custom virtual machines [VMs] much more palatable.)
Virtual machine images also become a way to handle special projects that only see the light of day a couple of times a year. In the case of the InteropNet, those virtual machines are spun up twice a year (once for Las Vegas and another for New York), saving a massive amount of time during hot-stage setup that used to be taken up doing a fresh sysgen for each show. In this case, the InteropNet team were also able to synchronize versions with the Global Data Vault's cloud hosting service so that we could swap our VMs onto our blade servers during the show, while maintaining access between shows for data mining.
You also need to keep firmly in mind that you can download a free VMware conversion tool that will allow you to prototype on a workstation version and then migrate to a full production system when appropriate. We regularly see engineers prototype servers under VMware Fusion (Mac workstation), convert and then SFTP up to a VMware ESX server in the lab. You also need to be sure to spool off the images onto a disk first, to avoid the "oops" factor. And remember that on a Windows machine, the external disk needs to be formatted NTFS and on the Mac "MacOS extended file system" if you want to get those huge virtual disk files onto the external drive. Sorry, but FAT/DOS isn't going to cut it for those huge files.
We expect similar virtual appliance collections to start appearing as Microsoft kick-starts its Hyper-V community efforts. With the Advanced Network Computing Laboratory being InfoWorld's biggest testing facility, they're now spinning up both a VMware and Windows Hyper-V mini-cloud on a set of blade servers so that editors can drop in the VM of their choice for review infrastructure.
When you start talking about cloud storage heading out to the very edge, nothing gets closer than the tiny device called Pogoplug. The
University of Hawaii research community has been playing with the Pogoplug now for a while, and being able to mount a fairly eclectic collection of USB drives onto a network-attached -storage-like device without worries about format has been, to say the least, liberating. While traveling, one researcher had a 1.5-TB Lacie Mac OS extended drive, a Seagate 250 GB New Technology File System drive and a couple of DOS thumb drives all mounted and available across the WAN with no firewall rules necessary. Since the entire authentication process is done in the cloud, Pogoplug doesn't need that much CPU. Once the Pogoplug data center has finished providing users with a "dating service"- like approach, it gets out of the way, letting the conversations take place on a peer-to-peer basis. Yet all of this is still secure, because of the rigorous authentication over SSL that Pogoplug requires. Key to the success of this tiny device is how the creators have turned the network attached storage model on its head. Instead of expecting all the network conversations to start from the outside world and head inward, the Pogoplug keeps a heartbeat-style conversation going with the Pogoplug data center.
Authenticated users then ride back on the already-existing conversation. Since the conversation started from the inside going out, normal firewall rules don't apply, because of the assumption that conversations going outward are trusted. This device could be viewed in the same way that Skype has become an unwanted bug for IT. It's hard to control in that it starts as an outbound service, "tricking" the corporate firewall into trusting it. However, it should also be viewed as a superfast and easy way to replace the need for a departmental file server just to provide remote file access. It could also be used as a quick-and-dirty traveling project team server that would work even on some of those funky hotel networks. It's all about how you spin it, and knowing about it so you can work it to your benefit instead of letting it creep up on you.
Company in a box
Some InfoWorld editors been toying with the concept of "a company in a box" ever since one of them mentioned a project that did some quick deploy networks for the Marine Expeditionary Force out of the back of a Humvee. Could this concept be used in the civilian world, and are there enough resources now that we can quickly spin up a company in a warehouse (or a tent) after a disaster? The gist is that there is a concept in the military called "shoot and scoot," where an entire artillery battalion regularly practice picking up and moving their mobile headquarters in a matter of minutes rather than hours. Quick-disconnect network trunks, gear in travel cases and lots of documentation to handle the setup and tear-down all make for a system designed to move. This ability is not for everyone (not to mention that it can get pretty expensive), but it wouldn't hurt to consider at least some of the better ideas as part of your business continuity planning.
The answer to trying out this project has been a resounding yes they could, and yes they will. With the huge number of virtual appliances available now, we could easily see combining off-the-shelf VMs with a few roll-your-own VMs to bring us back from disaster quickly. Virtualization can be a massive boon to business continuity, far beyond the old concepts of hot sites, warm sites and cold sites. The issue is that readiness costs lots of money, and the "hotter" the site ("hot site" means drive across town and you're running, warm means a bit of synchronization from storage, and cold means a full restore), the more it costs to keep everything running and up to date. Some banks have gone as far as completely duplicating their data processing facilities somewhere else, right down to empty cubicles, file cabinets and office support equipment—simply a breath-taking cost item for business continuity insurance. What clouds provide is a middle ground, where someone else keeps all your virtual machines warm and duplicated in multiple locations, all without the massive expense of a physically duplicated data center. You might not even need the computing side of the cloud during normal operations; just use the storage side to keep the VM images in sync. Then, if disaster does strike, spinning up those sync'd images is as simple as flipping a switch.
Some of the key factors to consider include the following:
- How much of your operation can live fully in the cloud, and how much has to physically be on-premise?
- Set up pre-provisioning agreements with SIP trunking vendors to swing your incoming lines over to the new trunk. Since quite a few companies are moving to SIP trunking anyway, this could be as simple as making sure the right people have the authority to do the move.
- Set up key services either under a VM now or perhaps use something like the Paragon Software system to periodically spin off a virtual disk image as a "warm" image. Then it will be just a matter of laying in the incremental data restores over the latest "warm" image. If you use something like Global Data Vault, then it's a matter of syncing the image from its data store.
- Use something like Asterisk or TrixBox to duplicate as much of your Dial plan on your PBX as is reasonable. Since it's all network-based, creating and testing your portable PBX isn't a huge resource hog.
- Since most cellular/3G/4G providers are located pretty high in buildings, using them for your WAN connectivity isn't that big a stretch, especially considering how many have generator capability now.
- Confirm that your backup locations have enough power and have enough reception for your cellular/3G/4G WAN connection.
- Put your bare-minimum system into a surplus road rack (aka Hardig or Anvil road case). Using something like an HP "Shortie" blade server, which provides both storage and computing capability, could go a long way toward bringing up essential services quickly.
- The School of Ocean and Earth Sciences and Technology (SOEST) at the University of Hawaii is an old hand at putting complete science labs and computing facilities into shipping containers. They're looking at using the portable NOC product from American Power Conversion that's pre-set up to your specifications. Power generation, UPS, cooling, control are all preconfigured in a rolling data center.
What we're really getting at is that virtualization and clouds pay dividends on many levels. What hasn't occurred to people is that having a portable computing facility can also pay huge dividends in terms of business continuity during disasters. It also means that moving your company for other reasons becomes a whole bunch cheaper too. The point we're making is that clouds free you of the data center anchor, giving your organization a level of portability never achieved in the past. If you're already in the cloud, then you only have to move the stuff that isn't already cloudy. We think this sounds like a good idea even if your apps are left in-house, just to remove hardware dependencies and provide for portability. Just in case.
Clouds flight path for Chapter 4
- Development languages and environments keep changing to take advantage of new layers of abstraction. We're moving toward finding programming tools that are appealing to a wider and wider audience. Each new programmatic abstraction layer means that business can home in on key topics faster and with less costly human resources.
- Software development kits (SDKs) and application programming interfaces (APIs) are really just the way we plug together various applications. SDKs and APIs are the foundation stones for some amazing programs today. Imagine having a programming language that truly allows you to concentrate on the business task rather than the tedium of the language. Emerging systems are making it even easier to link rich Internet applications to back-end cloud applications that are increasingly platform-independent, while giving Web-87873,m 3nconnected users capabilities previously found only on hugely powerful desktop workstations.
- Thank you Admiral Hopper, who led the way to high-level languages that make clouds possible. Admiral Hopper (who also gave us the term bug) was truly a visionary technologist, whose COBOL was the first abstraction layer of the new rich internet application platforms. The future is extremely bright for amazingly feature-full applications.
- Database abstraction methods and how a Hawaii company led the way. Some folks truly got rich as the world started building abstraction layers, and this tiny Honolulu company was one of the leaders. Like other abstraction systems, the modern database management systems have evolved into some incredibly complex systems that remove a huge amount of care and feeding complexity for your precious data. With new database-light systems, even simple cloud applications will be able to take advantage of the speed and reliability of modern database systems
- Using storage clouds only for backup just scratches the surface. At every turn, the cloud industry is finding new ways to utilize cloud storage. We took a look at a few and tried to imagine how cloud storage can continue to revolutionize business computing. It's already evident that Amazon is using its storage cloud as the glue at the center of its constellation of services. While Microsoft looks like it's playing catch-up, we wonder whether it may just leap-frog the competition.
- Is Google jumping ahead toward true cloud computing by moving us farther away from the hardware? We got pretty far out in our view of where cloud computing can go, and Google's view seems to match our view pretty well. Now the questions are how far Google will take this and whether the market actually wants it. We figure they must be on to something, with Microsoft's cloud offerings feeling very familiar and the amazing amount of buzz about cloud-enabled apps on the Android mobile phones emerging on the market.
Printed with permission from CRC Press. Copyright 2010. Cloud Computing: Technologies and Strategies of the Ubiquitous Data Center by Brian J. S. Chee and Curtis Franklin Jr. For more information about this title and other similar books, please visit http://www.crcpress.com/.
This was first published in August 2010