The public cloud is a great solution to a wide selection of problems however there are times when its use is simply not appropriate. This is typical of organisations who have specific requirements around how their data is handled, usually due to data sovereignty or regulatory compliance. However whilst the public cloud is a great way to bolster your infrastructure on the cheap (although that’s debatable when you start ramping up your VM size) it doesn’t take advantage of the current investments in infrastructure that you’ve already made. For large, established organisations this is not insignificant and is why many of them were reluctant to transition fully to public cloud based services. This is why I believe the future of the cloud will be paved with hybrid solutions, something I’ve been saying for years now.
Microsoft has finally shown that they’ve understood this with the release of Windows Azure Pack for Server 2012R2. Sure there was beginnings of it with SCVMM 2012 allowing you to add in your Azure account and move VMs up there but that kind of thing has been available for ages through hosting partners. The Azure Pack on the other hand brings features that were hidden behind the public cloud wall down to the private level, allowing you to make full use of it without having to rely on Azure. If I’m honest I thought that Microsoft would probably be the only ones to try this given their presence in both the cloud and enterprise space but it seems other companies have begun to notice the hybrid trend.
Google has been working with the engineers at Red Hat to produce the Test Compatibility Kit for Google App Engine. Essentially this kit provides the framework for verifying the API level functionality of a private Google App Engine implementation, something which is achievable through an application called CapeDwarf. The vast majority of the App Engine functionality is contained within that application, enough so that current developers on the platform could conceivably use their code using on premises infrastructure if they so wished. There doesn’t appear to be a bridge between the two currently, like there is with Azure, as CapeDwarf utilizes its own administrative console.
They’ve done the right thing by partnering with RedHat as otherwise they’d lack the penetration in the enterprise market to make this a worthwhile endeavour. I don’t know how much presence JBoss/OpenShift has though so it might be less of using current infrastructure and more about getting Google’s platform into more places than it currently is. I can’t seem to find any solid¹ market share figures to see how Google currently rates compared to the other primary providers but I’d hazard a guess they’re similar to Azure, I.E. far behind Rackspace and Amazon. The argument could be made that such software would hurt their public cloud product but I feel these kinds of solutions are the foot in the door needed to get organisations thinking about using these services.
Whilst my preferred cloud is still Azure I’m still a firm believer that the more options we have to realise the hybrid dream the better. We’re still a long way from having truly portable applications that can move between freely between private and public platforms but the roots are starting to take hold. Given the rapid pace of IT innovation I’m confident that the next couple years will see the hybrid dream fully realised and then I’ll finally be able to stop pining for it.
¹This article suggests that Microsoft has 20% of the market which, since Microsoft has raked in $1 billion, would peg the total market at some $5 billion total which is way out of line with what Gartner says. If you know of some cloud platform figures I’d like to see them as apart from AWS being number 1 I can’t find much else.
An old friend of mine wrote a post not too long ago saying that the FPS genre had almost run its course and was in either need of a reboot or a bullet. I agreed with him although countered with a single game that was, technically, a first person shooter but flipped the idea of what constituted a traditional FPS and got it all mixed up with some heavy RPG elements. Whilst I didn’t mention it at the time (mostly because the question was centred around player agency) Borderlands was another title in the FPS genre that felt like a breath of fresh air when compared to all the other generic shooters that have graced our gaming platforms over the past few years. Its sequel, released a couple weeks ago, stays true to the original’s FPS/RPG hybrid styling whilst provided some much needed polish in the areas that needed it.
Borderlands 2 takes place 5 years after the events in the original and with the vault opened and the monstrosity contained within it defeated a new valuable resource, a purple metal called Eridium, has sprung up all over Pandora. Handsome Jack, a member of the Hyperion corporation, notices this and secures the resource for himself allowing him to take over Hyperion. Jack now uses his power, as well as a giant orbital satellite in the form of a H which can be clearly seen from the ground, to control the inhabitants of Pandora. However rumours have been spreading of another vault contained on Pandora and a new set of vault hunters have come seeking its contents.
Just like the original Borderlands 2 sticks to cel shading for its graphics style and 3 years down the track its not looking any worse for wear. Whilst many have praised Borderlands 2 for being a graphical step up from its predecessor (and it is, in many ways) if you were like me and dived into the configuration files you would have been able to get similar levels of detail. That being said not having to do that now thanks to a menu that reveals all those options to you is a much better alternative and speaks volumes to the lengths that Gearbox has gone to in order to not make the PC version a bastard child of a port. Seeing as that was one of my main gripes with the original I’m glad to see this was addressed as I wasn’t looking forward to panning them again for it.
As I mentioned previously Borderlands 2 is a hybrid FPS/RPG with core elements of both combining together to form the core of the game play. The FPS portion, at its most basic level, is your typical run and gun affair with regenerating health (in the form of a shield) and chest high boxes littering the landscape to provide you with cover. The RPG elements aren’t as deep as full on RPG titles like say Skyrim but you’ve still got 4 distinct character classes each with a talent tree that contains 3 different paths in it giving you quite a bit of freedom in how your character ends up playing out.
Now whilst the basic aspects of the FPS part of Borderlands might not be too different from any other generic shooter the way in which combat actually plays out is nothing like it. Just like in the original each of the character classes has a unique action skill that can drastically change the way a fight goes. Since I choose the Commando I had myself a sentry turret that provided both added damage but also a distraction for some of the tougher enemies so that I could run up behind them and unleash hell in relative safety. Talking it over with my friends the Sentry gun is one of the most useful but apparently Zero’s ability (being able to turn invisible whilst leaving a decoy behind) is by far the most fun.
Of course there’s even more variation in the FPS aspects thanks to the near infinite amount of guns, grenades and other inventory items that can drastically change the way you engage hostile targets. Whilst there’s a couple simple mechanics like different types of elemental damage that are more/less effective depending on the type of enemy you’re facing there are many guns with ludicrous abilities that can transform a meagre character into an unbridled tool of destruction. Indeed finding such weapons are usually key to progressing past certain points and you’re pretty much guaranteed to find a couple a long your way.
For me it was a rocket launcher called the Partisan Mongol which upon firing launched a barrage of rockets that did several orders of magnitude more damage than I was capable of unloading with any of my other weapons. This weapon became a key part of my arsenal as it meant that should I get into a jam and need to kill something quickly to get second wind all I needed to do was whip out my launcher and lay waste to whatever was in front of me. Sure it wasn’t fool proof and the amount of ammo it consumed meant it wasn’t particularly sustainable but considering I carried that weapon with me from level 20 something right up until the end just shows you how valuable weapons like that can be.
Your talent trees will also have a major impact on how you progress through the game. I played as a Survival Commando mostly because the initial talents went a long way to reducing the amount of down time I had to endure. As I went up in levels however the skills made me almost unstoppable as I was able to take massive amounts of pounding without breaking a sweat. Couple this with a couple other items like say an amp shield that imbues your weapons with extra damage at full charge and a build that was primarily defensive in nature suddenly becomes wildly offensive. In the end I settled on a build that reduced the cooldown of my turret skill by half and enabled me to have two turrets out at a time that both had shields on them, giving me both amazing survival power and an incredible damage output.
There’s also another levelling system on top of the regular one and its called, eerily enough (considering the title of my last Borderlands review), Badass Ranks. In essence they’re like a sub-achievement system, they’re only tracked in game, but you get ranks for completing things like setting a certain number of enemies on fire, using certain item abilities and performing all sorts of weird and wonderful acts. Once you rank up you’re then given a token that you can spend on a percentage based perk that can be things like increasing your shield regen rate. According to what Gearbox tells you these perks are unlimited and thus function as a levelling system that will continue long on after you’ve hit the 50 level cap. Unlimited is a bit of a misleading term though as its clear that as you level up the same perks you start to hit diminishing returns on them and I get the feeling that the upper bounds for many of them are in the realms of 10% or so.
In terms of overall polish Borderlands 2 is certainly leaps and bounds ahead of its predecessor. Gone is the GameSpy account requirement and the need to open up a rather excessively number of ports on your router in order for it to work. The menus are also not painfully console specific reacting much better to the additional input options offered by the mouse and keyboard of the PC platform. I did encounter some interesting and quirky bugs along the way and there was only one that actually broke the game in a serious way.
Minor plot spoilers follow:
For the BNK-3R boss fight I spent most of my first try of it running around looking for ammo drops to replenish my stash. Now I’m not sure if it was due to me being in a strange position or not but once it was past a certain percentage of health and Roland said something like “Now that’s a big gun” it jammed itself on the corner of the platform and then started violently shuddering whilst not getting anywhere. I figured it was just stuck and hopefully wearing its health down would trigger it to teleport out or get unstuck but unfortunately after wearing it all the way down to 0 health it just sat there. After jumping to my death (and eating the respawn cost) it regenerated all its health but was still stuck in the same position. The only way to get it unstuck is to reload and then hope it doesn’t happen again. Thankfully for me it didn’t but there are many people on the forums reporting the same issue so hopefully it gets fixed soon.
The writers have also out done themselves as the comedic tones that are interwoven in through a semi-serious plot make for a story that’s engaging, entertaining and completely hilarious at times. All of the characters have their own unique brand of humour and whilst I didn’t find all of them laugh out loud funny they all had their moments. Handsome Jack, your nemesis for the entire game, is also an extremely hateable character and they did a great job of making him a real douche bag. Needless to say that I spent the majority of the game just waiting for a moment when I could put a bullet between his eyes.
The story itself was good too and whilst I didn’t feel a deep emotional attachment for many of the characters (apart from Mordecai as I played him in the original) I did genuinely care about how the ending panned out. If pushed I’d say it was the game play that made it for me rather than the story but overall I’d rate it far above other titles in the FPS genre which usually only use a paper thin storyline in order to keep you going.
Borderlands 2 is an amazing game having taken all the ideals of the original and polishing them up to a glorious hue. All the complaints that I had about the original are gone and save for a few bugs the experience is seamless. Even for those who didn’t play the original Borderlands 2 offers a great FPS/RPG experience that is only matched by other greats in this hybrid genre like Deus Ex: Human Revolution. If you’re one of the many who enjoy games with a long shelf life then Borderlands 2 is definitely a title for you as my play time is probably only a quarter of what’s possible.
Borderlands 2 is available on PC, PS3 and Xbox360 right now for $49.99, $69 and $69 respectively. Game was played entirely on the PC with around 25 hours of total play time, 58% of the achievements unlocked and reaching level 31.
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.
I consider myself a veteran gamer, having seen the gaming world evolve from its first tedious steps into the real world back in the late 80’s to the multi-billion industry that it has become today. I’ve also seen the industry evolve itself to take advantage of all the innovations that its fellow industry, namely IT, has brought to the table. The most interesting innovation was the idea of the Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) which brazenly put for the notion that all interactions would take place online something which back in 1997, when Internet proliferation wasn’t all that high, was definitely out of the box thinking.
I must admit up until 2004 I didn’t really have a suitable connection that could support these kinds of games. I do remember playing quite a lot of Team Fortress Classic and Counter Strike with my 56k modem, although I had to use those special “High Ping Bastards” servers in order to have a chance. My first foray into the genre of MMORPGs came in the same form that the majority of current MMORPG players would have, World of Warcraft. I had heard tales of people playing games like Everquest and Final Fantasy Online to the detriment of other things (namely, their lives) but I had yet to see a game wreck such havok on any of my friends. As it turns out, it was I whom the game would ensnare with its chillingly addictive grip.
So started a long history of the past 5 years of experimentation with this new genre of games that I had never considered before. Since my first contact with World of Warcraft I’ve stumbled my way through many other titles and I have since landed on Aion: Tower of Eternity. Since playing through at least 3 other MMORPGs that have a similar bent to this one I knew what kinds of things to look out for to make my life a bit easier. After levelling 2 characters to 80 (and 2 more to 70 in the previous expansion) from scratch in the latest World of Warcraft expansion I had noticed a trend between the different character archetypes: the hybrids, namely ones that could heal, always had an easier time levelling.
My first ever character in a MMORPG (apart from my paladin in the closed beta) was a rogue in World of Warcraft. Whilst I had no trouble levelling this character there were definitely many occasions when I was incapable of completing a certain task without grouping up to do so. Fast forward a couple months to when I rolled my second character, a paladin, and tasks that were impossible previously were completed with ease. This then carried on to my next characters who were rolled years later, namely a hunter and shaman. With the hunter have the ability to heal their pet they were on the cusp of being able to do almost everything solo, although the shaman with the new talent trees seemed almost unstoppable when it came to the levelling content.
This theory has remained uncontested in the other MMORPGs I’ve been privvy to over the past few years. My foray into Age of Conan had me as a bear shaman and the healing abilities they had made most content (what was there at least) much easier than what other players were experiencing. My Disciple of Khaine in Warhammer Online was probably one of the best examples of this so far, although their intrinsic linking of damage and healing was probably more responsible for them being an exceptional levelling class than the ability to heal.
And so when it came time to choose a class in Aion Online I first decided that I’d step out of my usual hybrid love and try something new, the tank archetype. I’ve played pretty much every other role in MMORPGs so it seemed fitting that I give tanking a go. This was only to be met with the horror that was levelling with this class which was slow and utterly painful. My initial review of Aion saw me sticking through this for the sake of the experience and a good article, but I can’t say I was overly impressed with the amount of downtime the class had to endure. Unfortunately for this class its not like WoW either where you can specialize your character for levelling and then respecialize once you hit end game. It seems that if you choose the Templar in Aion you’re doomed to fighting your way through the levels slowly, something which isn’t great for what could be considered one of the most required archetypes in a MMORPG.
Queue my other experiments with the classes in Aion, namely a priest and scout archetype (that went to chanter and ranger respectively). The scout was indeed a much faster at levelling than the warrior, mostly due to the higher damage the class did. The downtime unfortunately was the same as the warrior, which led me to dislike the class. I finally gave up on the experiment and went for a class with healing, and the difference was like night and day. I don’t think I’ve had to struggle yet with any content with my chanter and whilst I hear tales that they’re slow to level my experience is anything but.
The trade is of course that characters like this who are jack of all trades are masters of none and this is a sticking point for many people. I’m not entirely sure what it is about the MMORPG community but when game developers tried to blur the lines between the traditional DPS/Healer/Tank train of thought they get all confused and try to fit any class into one of those archetypes. When they can’t the class is usually written off or relegated to a single role which they’re not particularly useful for, something which plagued many of the hybrids in World of Warcraft in the early years.
It’s always hard to make character classes work at all levels as you can’t give players everything right at the start of the game. I mean, why would people bother levelling any character if they had all the good bits at level 1? The problem then stems from the requirements that players put on these classes at the end game which, in a game like Aion, relegates some classes to trudge their way through the lower end content using characters that don’t function well in such areas. World of Warcraft alleviated this a lot by allowing people to specialize using talent points and was really an ingenious solution to a problem that has plagued most MMORPGs. The hybrids still came out in front in terms of levelling however.
The phenomena is nothing new and it will continue through all MMORPGs for many years to come solely by virtue of what customers have come to expect from game developers. The 3 archetype model is ingrained in everyone’s minds and few have attempted to break free from this model. It is possible that a future MMO will attempt a paradigm shift and introduce a whole new concept to this genre. For now it seems however that the hybrids will remain the kings of solo and levelling content.