Dark Clouds and Real Virtual Problems

April 10, 2008 at 8:59 am | Posted in Technology Trends | 2 Comments

As usual in the world of technology, the media hype far outpaces the actual implementation and trust in the technology. So much so that Gartner put together something called a “Hype Cycle” that is actually one of the more useful tools that I have seen from an analyst firm. I think I like it so much because it captures the essence of how something goes from buzz to reality. Right now, there are two major technologies that definitely have the IT world all a buzz: Virtualization and Clouds.

Virtualization is the much older technology and has been implemented in nearly every IT shop in some form or fashion. It could be as basic as a developer team using a virtual image to do their testing, or as advanced as an entire data center consolidating production machines. But it’s there, and it’s growing.

The Cloud is relatively new and has everyone thinking that this could be a really game-changing initiative that could be the ultimate “hosting” solution. Right now, Amazon is the clear leader in this space with its EC2 (Elastic Compute Cloudand S3 (Simple Storage Service) offerings as components of their AWS (Amazon Web Services). If you really want to oversimplify how to think about the offerings, we could compare it to an old fashion system. You could view AWS as the interface the developers program in (like their language), S3 represents the disk drives (storage), and EC2 represents the motherboard (processors, memory, etc.) Just picture all that one web, essentially unlimited in size and power. You use what you pay for.

So everyone is talking about the hype, but what are some of the downsides? Turns out there are many, so we’ll just look at a few of them to get the idea.

First, we have decades of management software and human expertise built into our current solutions. So when you move to something different, it’s going to take a long while for the ecosystem to mature around it. And like any new technology, these are both very easy to implement small scale. They get implemented on a system or two, folks love it, a few more get implemented, they love it more, then suddenly there are hundreds of them out there with no way to manage them effectively. This is the kind of sprawl that keeps IT VP’s up all night.

Second, bad people are going to look for bad things to do with new technology. There was an interesting article in Forbes that talked about some of the recent attacks on Virtualized machines. They are scary and it will take a while for security to get ahead of these things. Get used to hearing ominous terms like “hyperjacking.” While we haven’t heard a lot about the same kind of attacks on the Cloud technologies, I think it’s only because it’s not mature enough yet. It will happen.

Third, reliability only comes through the test of time. Amazon’s Cloud has now gone down a couple of times. (Here’s one of them) Amazon’s response was something to the effect of: Systems fail all the time. Ugh. Not exactly what IT shops want to hear. This really opens the door for Google to step in as “the cloud done right” and they are already on that path.

Fourth, everyone has become very dependent upon detailed monitoring — the cousin of detailed management. How are you going to monitor a system that might reside on a virtualized machine with 10 other virtual machines (already an auditor’s nightmare) that then connects to a cloud storage back-end that is hosted who-knows-where right alongside who-knows-what, and it talks to the cloud via a bunch of web services residing somewhere next door or on Mars… you just don’t know. Now, monitor that to the granular level that you can put a Service Level Agreement on it. Good luck. That head of IT I talked about earlier losing sleep is now getting therapeutic counseling for stress overload.

It’s a brave new world, and these technologies are great. In fact, they are probably revolutionary. But be careful. Don’t get too enticed early on and suddenly find your data center out of control. Take it slow and watch the industry, and most importantly, watch the third-party vendors. I don’t just say that because I work for one. They are actually very good indicators as to when something is going mainstream. And in the early days of any technology, you generally need them until the vendors catch up (usually many years later) with tools of their own to do the job.

It will not be boring!

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  1. Great post. The cloud/grid/pool (pick your metaphor) is where the action is, either at Google or in your own data center. I do think that the first steps are very approachable and reliable today — people use VMware to dynamically balance their data centers in production all the time today. You already don’t know exactly which physical disk your data sits on in your SAN — why should you worry about which server your workload is running on? The full data center in the cloud and Google OS isn’t there yet, but what’s going on today can be straightforward to manage if you know what you’re doing. (Disclaimer I work for VMware.)

    And as far as “hyperjacking” goes, I wouldn’t be losing much sleep at this point. Some good background on Blue Pill:
    http://x86vmm.blogspot.com/2007/07/bluepill-detection-in-two-easy-steps.html
    http://www.virtualization.info/2006/08/debunking-blue-pill-myth.html

  2. Thanks, John, for the helpful links.

    I couldn’t agree more about the point you make regarding the SAN compared to the physical machine resources. The hang-up I’m finding in our customer base is with the auditors. They seem to care a great deal. we could speculate on lots of reasons for this (will do so in future posts), but right now it is something I hear very often. Obviously, only in regard to mission-critical systems.

    Regarding your comment about managment being straightforward if you know what you’re doing… It’s the conditional “if” I’m trying to raise attention to. 😉


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