I talk a big game when it comes to cloud stuff and for quite a while it was just that: talk. I’ve had a lot of experience in enterprise IT with virtualization and the like, basically all the stuff that powers the cloud solutions we’re so familiar with today, but it wasn’t up until recently that I actually took the plunge and actually started using the cloud for what its good for. There were two factors at work here, the first being that cloud services usually require money to use them and I’m already spending enough on web hosting as it is (this has since been sorted by joining BizSpark) but mostly it was time constraints as learning to code for the cloud properly is no small feat.
My first foray into developing stuff for the cloud, specifically Windows Azure, was back sometime last year when I had an idea for a statistics website based around StarCraft 2 replays. After finding out that there was a library for parsing all the data I wanted (it’s PHP but thanks to Phalanger its only a few small modifications away from being .NET) I thought it would be cool to see things like how your actions per minute changed over time and other stats that aren’t immediately visible through the various other sites that had similar ambitions. With that all in mind I set out to code myself up a web service and I actually got pretty far with it.
However due to the enormous amount of work required to get the site working the way I wanted to work it ultimately ended up falling flat long before I attempted to deploy it. Still I learnt all the valuable lessons of how to structure my data for cloud storage services, the different uses of worker and web roles and of course the introduction into ASP.NET MVC which is arguably the front end of choice for any new cloud application on the Windows Azure framework. I didn’t touch the cloud for a long time after that until just recently when I made the move to all things Windows 8 which comes hand in hand with Visual Studio 2012.
Visual Studio 2010 was a great IDE in its own right the cloud development experience on it wasn’t particularly great, requiring a fair bit of set up in order to get everything right. Visual Studio 2012 on the other hand is built with cloud development in mind and my most recent application, which I’m going to keep in stealth until it’s a bit more mature, was an absolute dream to build in comparison to my StarCraft stats application. The emulators remain largely the same but the SDK and tools available are far better than their previous incarnations. Best of all deploying the application can’t be much simpler.
In order to deploy my application onto the production fabric all I had to do was follow the bouncing ball after right clicking my solution and hitting “Publish”. I had already set up my Azure subscription (which Visual Studio picked up on and downloaded the profile file for me) but I hadn’t configured a single thing otherwise and the wizard did everything that was required to get my application running in the cloud. After that my storage accounts were available as a drop down option in the configuration settings for each of the cloud roles, no messing around with copying keys into service definition files or anything. After a few initial teething issues with a service that didn’t behave as expected when its table storage was empty I had the application up and running without incident and it’s been trucking along well ever since.
I really can’t overstate just how damn easy it was to go from idea to development to production using the full Microsoft suite. For all my other applications I’ve usually had to spend a good few days after I’ve reached a milestone configuring my production environment the same way as I had development and 90% of the time I won’t remember all the changes I made along the way. With Azure it’s pretty much a simple change to 2 settings files (via dropdowns), publishing and then waiting for the application to go live. Using WebDeploy I can also test code changes without the risk of breaking anything as a simple reboot to the instances will roll the code back to its previous version. It’s as fool proof as you can make it.
Now if Microsoft brought this kind of ease of development to traditional applications we’d start to see some real changes in the way developers build applications in the enterprise. Since the technology backing the Azure emulator is nothing more than a layer on top of SQL and general file storage I can’t envisage that wrapping that up to an enterprise level product would be too difficult and then you’d be able to develop real hybrid applications that were completely agnostic of their underlying platform. I won’t harp on about it again as I’ve done that enough already but suffice to say I really think that it needs to happen.
I’m really looking forward to developing more on the cloud as with the experience being so seamless it really reduces the friction I usually get when making something available to the public. I might be apprenhensive to release my application to the public right now but it’s no longer a case of whether it will work properly or not (I know it will since the emulator is pretty darn close to production) it’s now just a question of how many features I want to put in. I’m not denying that the latter could be a killer in its own right, as it has been in the past, but the less things I have to worry about the better and Windows Azure seems like a pretty good platform for alleviating a lot of my concerns.
Maybe it’s my corporate IT roots but I’ve always thought that the best cloud strategy would be a combination of in house resources that would have the ability to offload elsewhere when extra resources were required. Such a deployment would mean that organisations could design their systems around base loads and have the peak handled by public clouds, saving them quite a bit of cash whilst still delivering services at an acceptable level. It would also gel well with management types as not many are completely comfortable being totally reliant on a single provider for any particular service which in light of recent cloud outages is quite prudent. For someone like myself I was more interested in setting up a few Azure instances so I could test my code against the real thing rather than the emulator that comes with Visual Studio as I’ve always found there’s certain gotchas that don’t show up until you’re running on a real instance.
Now the major cloud providers: Rackspace, AWS, et. al. haven’t really expressed much interest in supporting configurations like this which makes business sense for them since doing so would more than likely eat into their sales targets. They could license the technology of course but that brings with it a whole bunch of other problems like what are supported configurations and releasing some measure of control over the platform in order to enable end users to be able to deploy their own nodes. However I had long thought Microsoft, who has a long history of letting users install stuff on their own hardware, would eventually allow Azure to run in some scaled down fashion to facilitate this hybrid cloud idea.
Indeed many developments in their Azure product seemed to support this, the strongest of which being the VM role which allowed you to build your own virtual machine then run it on their cloud. Microsoft have offered their Azure Appliance product for a while as well, allowing large scale companies and providers the opportunity to run Azure on their own premises. Taking this all into consideration you’d think that Microsoft wasn’t too far away from offering a solution for medium organisations and developers that were seeking to go to the Azure platform but also wanted to maintain some form of control over their infrastructure.
After talking with a TechEd bound mate of mine however, it seems that idea is off the table.
VMware has had their hybrid cloud product (vCloud) available for quite some time and whilst it satisfies most of the things I’ve been talking about so far it doesn’t have the sexy cloud features like an in-built scalable NoSQL database or binary object storage. Since Microsoft had their Azure product I had assumed they weren’t interested in competing with VMware on the same level but after seeing one of the TechEd classes and subsequently browsing their cloud site it looks like they’re launching SCVMM 2012 as a direct competitor to vCloud. This means that Microsoft is basically taking the same route by letting you build your own private cloud, which is basically just a large pool of shared resources, foregoing any implementation of the features that make Azure so gosh darn sexy.
Figuring that out left me a little disappointed, but I can understand why they’re doing it.
Azure, as great as I think it is, probably doesn’t make sense in a deployment scenario of anything less than a couple hundred nodes. Much of Azure’s power, like any cloud provider, comes from its large number of distributed nodes which provide redundancy, flexibility and high performance. The Hyper-V based private cloud then is more tailored to the lower end where enterprises likely want more control that what Azure would provide, not to mention that experience in deploying Azure instances is limited to Microsoft employees and precious few from the likes of Dell, Fujitsu and HP. Hyper-V then is the better solution for those looking to deploy a private cloud and should they want to burst out to a public cloud they’ll just have to code their application to be able to do that. Such a feature isn’t impossible however, but it is an additional cost that will need to be considered.