Cloud Computing Advocates Detail Its Future

Jun 26, 2009 (07:06 AM EDT)

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Cloud computing may be inevitable, a theme repeated frequently at the Structure 09 Conference in San Francisco Thursday, but some of its foremost proponents agreed it will be quite different from IT as we currently know it.

For one thing, the relational database, the king of data storage in the data center, doesn't work so well in the cloud. Neither do spinning disks or a wide assortment of heterogeneous servers, all prominent elements of the average data center. Other than that, the transition should go fine, proponents seemed to say.

Structure 09 is a new conference sponsored by the Gigaom Network. It drew a flock of cloud cognoscenti.

Amazon CTO Werner Vogels, the architect of the leading EC2 cloud service, was there, saying that cloud computing is a disruptive force, overturning the traditional way of doing things in the data center. "It's incredible. We haven't seen something (previously) that's so disruptive to how we think about the future."

Greg Papadopolous, Sun Microsystems CTO, said network computing and grid computing preceded the cloud, but with public clouds such as the Sun Open Cloud Platform becoming available, "the on ramp has become much, much simpler."

Vogels, however, stopped short of saying cloud computing would replace the data center. Moderator Om Malik asked him, "When will we get over the desire to own the infrastructure?" Vogels responded: "You make it sound like it will be the demise of the data center. Cloud computing doesn't mean you move 100% into the cloud. This is not a winner-take-all game."

"In general," added Papadopolous, "it will be really expensive and hard to move legacy pieces over. It's a much better strategy figuring out, what are the new pieces that I want to move to the cloud?"

Russ Daniels of HP said, "The real reason we talk about the cloud so much is because everybody can draw one. Drawings of the Internet represented it as a cloud," and white board practitioners now know what they mean when they refer to one, even if their listeners aren't sure what they're saying.

Daniels said he nudges conversations with HP customers about the cloud into a more specific context. But he left no doubt that HP takes cloud computing seriously, views it as an ideal service medium, and is prepared to help customers get to it. "We think cloud is the next phase of the Internet," he said.

Marc Benioff, CEO of, nursing a cold, said the current recession caught many companies "with their pants down, building out for companies about to become 25% biggers and instead they were running companies that were 25% smaller. Enterprise software didn't let them adjust fast enough."

One way to avoid that in the fate in the future is to figure out how to use cloud computing for part of your infrastructure, he continued. "We're trying to move as many of our (in-house) applications as possible into the cloud," he said. employees use Google Mail instead on on-premises e-mail, Google Apps and Workday human resources as a service.

Lew Moorman, president and chief strategy officer of Rackspace, noted: "We manage 50,000 servers for customer-dedicated hosting. Multi-tenancy is what cloud computing is all about."

Another speaker, David Lipscomb, senior VP of engineering at online applications provider NetSuite, drove the point home: "With multi-tenancy, the customer looks on the application as uniquely his own. The support staff looks on it as one application, not 6,000." NetSuite said s it now has 6,000 customers. Matt Mullenweg, founding developer of WordPress, one of the most popular blogging sites, says he should have relied on cloud resources in the first place: "The biggest mistake we ever made was buying servers. We spent $100,000 of the $700,000 we had available on servers. We now lease them at a monthly rate. That's the kind of flexibility we cherish. We are not going to sign any long term contracts (or buy more servers). There's no need to."

Jonathan Heiliger, VP of technical operations at Facebook, said his firm conceived, developed, and launched a new application, User Names, in less than two months, thanks to cloud computing. When it came time to launch the new service at 9 p.m. June 12, the firm pulled a cross-disciplinary team together in a conference room equipped with Chinese food to see what happened, he said.

Heiliger said the development team tried to foresee problems, but testing in the cloud found dependencies among the production systems that it hadn't foreseen. They were ironed out by launch, but still, Facebook executives were nervous about the short incubation period for User Names, the service where a Facebook users signs up to use their own names as their URL on Facebook.

As they watched traffic build June 12, extra servers were standing by in an East Coast data center "just in case of hardware failure," and auxiliary functions on Facebook pages, such as chat, had been temporarily shut down. "We created a memcache pool for user name traffic," a technique of pulling an application's software objects out of the database in advance and keeping them available for quick access in shared random access memory.

The launch came off without a hitch and Facebook signed up one million User Names users in the first hour, Heiliger said.

Cloud computing will prompt new skills in application developers and wean them from their dependence on relational databases, predicted members of a panel on, "From Databases to Dataspaces."

"Application developers don't usually target Hadoop as part of their applications," said Jeff Hammerbacher, chief scientist at Cloudera, a Burlingame, Calif., a firm founded to provide technical support of the Apache Hadoop Project's technology. Hadoop is open source code, based on Amazon's MapReduce, which understands how data is distributed across a large cluster of computers and attempts to assign tasks to be executed on a node close to the data.

Asked what was another impediments to Web applications in the cloud, Richard Buckingham, VP of technical operations at MySpace, answered, "Spinning disks. They haven't gotten any faster in ten years," but flash-based devices have yet to achieve the scale and reliability needed to support cloud applications, he said. Najam Ahmad, general manager of Global Networking Services at Microsoft, agreed disk drives were an antiquated technology.

He added cloud vendors such as Microsoft have had to come up with a new hierarchy of data based on its impact on the business. Microsoft now rates data, such as personal information and credit card numbers as "high impact" data, other types as medium or low impact data, he said.

Paul Sagan, president and CEO of Akamai, the content distribution network, says Akamai is responsible for routing 6-7 million requests for content a second, 300 billion per day. It maintains distributed content on 50,000 servers in 2,000 countries, and builds maps of the fastest Internet segments over which to route the requests.

Delivering content used to have to overcome latency problems in the first mile of routing or the last mile to the end user. But those problems have largely disappeared. "Now all the problems are in the middle mile. We know where the fastest segments are. We understand air traffic control for the Internet," he said.

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