Need Some Help with that Cloud?

By By Dennis Barker, GRIDtoday

April 28, 2008

To smaller companies, cloud computing might seem lofty and sci-fi. Although they understand the business case and benefits of computing on demand, they steer away from it, afraid they lack the resources and savvy to make the leap.

“I have learned that the biggest challenge for those companies is having the resources and know-how to move their applications to the cloud,” says Thorsten von Eicken, chief technology officer and co-founder of RightScale, a provider of cloud software and expertise.

However, companies deciding to use Amazon Web Services (AWS) and the Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) environment don’t have to get there on their own. They have a choice of providers who can help them get their online businesses up and running — and stay up. And that’s good, because even though Amazon has brought the cloud closer to the ground, there are solid reasons to let someone else launch you into it.

First, it’s easier. “EC2, unfortunately, is a bit harder to use than they’re selling it,” says James Staten, principal analyst at Forrester Research and author of the recent report “Is Cloud Computing Ready for the Enterprise?” “For a lot of operations that want to use EC2, it’s more complicated than what they can support.” Software companies like Enomaly and the aforementioned RightScale are filling a definite need with their get-you-in-the-cloud offerings, he says. “They really understand the corner cases of EC2 and how to get the most out of it.”

They can also add a protective layer of reliability. “If you set up all your servers within EC2 and there’s a big outage, they’re gone,” Staten says. “But if you follow the advice and take the approach of someone like RightScale, you’ll recover quickly.”

Small outfits with few IT resources could benefit from cloud service providers, but so could enterprises. “We’re finding that people in an enterprise who want to take advantage of EC2 are typically not in IT and can’t get the attention of IT. They have a project they think will work best in the cloud, but they’re not typically technical themselves. They can really benefit from a service like this.”

The RightScale Way

“When EC2 came out, it was obvious to me that that was the way to go,” von Eicken says. “But it’s a big jump for people who are used to having their entire life installed on their PC. So we built RightScale around the idea of enabling companies to easily develop scalable Web applications and run them on Amazon’s Web services.”

 “People want to run their application in the cloud but they need help,” von Eicken explaines. “What we provide is a complete platform to set up and manage their deployments.” RightScale’s platform consists of three main elements: a comprehensive management console, prepackaged applications and architectural/operational support.

RightScale offers two basic versions of its platform. RightSite Edition provides all the software needed to build and run a customer-oriented Web site on EC2. RightGrid Edition is for organizations that need a scalable, fault-tolerant system for running batch-processing tasks. In terms of contents, the chief difference between the two is that the former includes Web site management tools, and the latter comes with batch-processing capabilities and an interface to AWS’s Simple Query Service to take care of the job queue. A third package, RightScale Premium, combines both editions and adds consulting and development help as part of the price. (With the other versions, support is based on “the level of engagement.”) You can also sign up for a free developer’s edition.

Automatic scaling of servers is one of RightScale’s key technologies, and each edition handles it differently. RightSite monitors arrays of front-end Web servers and scales them in response to load changes, such as an increase or decrease in traffic. It also automatically registers new servers in the DNS system. RightGrid monitors the Amazon SQS queues and appropriately scales back-end batch-processing servers to handle the load. RightGrid also automatically uploads and downloads files to and from Amazon’s S3 storage system.

These automation capabilities not only keep you from having to be there at 5 a.m. studying the load to see if you’ll need to add servers, von Eicken says, they can also be used to create redundancy, “launching a new server to replace a failed one, for example.”

“What our customers are grokking is that the machine comes up, properly configured, and it can talk to the load balancer and say, ‘I’m here. Send me traffic.’ All these connections between servers need to be made automatically, and that’s a big part of what RightScale is all about,” von Eicken explains.

RightScale provides auto-scaling rules, but the user can change those to fit changing demands. “All of our alerts can be turned into actions,” von Eicken says. “One app server dies, for instance, and a new one is launched. Overload can result in a new server booting up. You can adjust all of these conditions. Everything we do is transparent.”

The Dashboard is RightScale’s central hub for managing and monitoring your AWS activities, as well as usual system administration tasks. Here is where you configure and track virtual machine images, keep an eye on running servers, browse the S3 storage system, and manage server groups. If you discover you need to add a server to meet demand, you “go to the Web page and click on one” to initiate the boot sequence, von Eicken says.

RightScale bundles in all the applications (mostly open source) you’d need to run a site on EC2, including a MySQL database manager, application servers, load balancer and scripting tools. A program called RightScale Deployments lets you set up groups of servers to work together, and manage them as one unit. “You might have an app server, two front-end Web servers, and a couple MySQL database servers,” von Eicken says. “You can define their images as a group, and launch and control them as a single entity.”

Don’t Pay for What You Don’t Want

Beside the benefit of easy cloud management, this capacity for quick configuration makes it easy to set up separate test platforms. “Because it’s all automated, you can run a test in 10 minutes,” von Eicken says. “You don’t have to spend all day setting up machines. And when you’re done, it can all go away.”

It can all go away. That is attractive to many businesses, especially new or small outfits that don’t need a full-time datacenter humming along and ringing up expenses round the clock. If activity ebbs and flows, so should computing resources.

A perfect case in point: Animoto. This innovative startup runs a Web site (animoto.com) where people can create video clips that mix music and images. Users choose pictures and a song (their own or canned), and Animoto handles the synching of audio and video to generate the clip, which can then be embedded in, say, the user’s site or Facebook page. The Animoto team developed what it calls “cinematic artificial intelligence” to match images to music and produce professional-grade results. This involves a lot of data processing. Like 2,000 servers’ worth of processing, for starters. “To buy all those servers, we were going to need venture capital or something,” says Brad Jefferson, CEO and co-founder of Animoto. “But what if we bought them and didn’t get the traffic we expected? Or got more traffic than we could handle? We could see ourselves spending most of our time just managing hardware.”

Animoto realized it could use AWS as a gigantic rendering engine, so the company decided to take three months to “pull out the guts and put them into AWS,” Jefferson says. And that’s when RightScale became part of the picture. “AWS is an amazing concept, but to put your infrastructure there is pretty complex, and not our core competency. So we chose RightScale to work along with us. The bottom line is we could not have done it without them.”

RightScale’s claims of autoscaling to meet demand were put to the reality test recently when Animoto experienced a massive uptick in users. “We went from 50 servers on Monday to 3,500 servers on Friday,” Jefferson recalls. “When you have the chance of an app going viral, you need the horsepower in case you get lucky. If that demand then slides, you can scale back and not have to pay for machines you aren’t using.”

A RightScale customer that handles medical claims came up with a service that would bring in new business, but it depended on processing millions of forms in just a couple days; after that, it wouldn’t be an ongoing operation, so building out a datacenter did not make sense. “Basically their situation was ‘We need a thousand machines for a couple days,’” von Eicken says. “With our auto-scaling features, they were able to use Amazon’s services to take advantage of utility computing.”

Intro to Enomalism

RightScale usually means EC2 when it talks about “the cloud.” Enomaly is more agnostic, typically referring to “a cloud.” It might seem like a subtle distinction, but it reflects Enomaly’s different model. You can use the Enomalism Elastic Computing Cloud Platform to run applications on a cloud infrastructure, but you don’t have to run them on Amazon’s cloud. If you do want to use Amazon’s server farms, though, Enomaly supports that with a migration kit that manages movement of virtual images between a local virtualized server environment and the Amazon EC2 environment.

“The Enomalism platform sits independently of but also on EC2,” says Reuven Cohen, CEO of Enomaly. “We’re not totally dependent on Amazon. We have our own approach to managing a decentralized, highly available virtual environment. It’s more of a peer-to-peer approach because we know machines are going to fail. We don’t think your entire environment should sit in the Amazon cloud. You should have multiple clouds. For redundancy.”

Cohen says some Enomaly customers “buy some servers and create their own miniclouds. We’re kind of a white-label EC2, but our application can sit on top of EC2 or on your own machines. A lot of our customers are using our Windows version, setting up their own cloud on their servers, then migrating it to EC2.”

Enomaly’s platform will scale resources up or down to meet processing demands based on user policies. “We use policies to apply resources as needed, so performance is maintained regardless of usage spikes. We automatically ensure service levels using policies,” Cohen says, “and users can create policies for failover.” It only takes a few clicks to change a virtual server’s configuration details or move an application to another server, or you can automate all that with rules that can be set to trigger reconfigurations, such as “add more CPUs to a virtual server when utilization goes above 90 percent.”

The Enomalism load-balancing software has “geo-targeting” functions that could be useful to businesses with international reach. Resources can be dispatched only to the geographical region that needs it at a particular time. “Let’s say you have a big increase in traffic from Country A,” Cohen says. “The load balancer can create new instances for that country and direct all traffic there.”

“We provide the building blocks for cloud computing,” he says. “Our customers say ‘EC2 looks cool,’ so they want to either run on EC2 or want to do something like that within their own datacenter. That’s where we come in.”

Elsewhere in the EC2 Ecosystem

The new Elastra Cloud Server is designed to give companies everything they need to launch clustered databases in the cloud. Elastra says it simplifies things with templates and easy-to-use design tools, including two new markup languages for specifying system architecture and provisioning instructions. Markup tags can be used to design automated elasticity into the system, describing when the system needs to scale up or down to meet computing demand. A cloud system can be developed in days rather than weeks using its platform, the company says. Elastra targets its technology at companies operating large, complex Web sites, SaaS/ISVs and enterprise IT groups.

How’s it going? Once your applications are running on EC2, Navisite will help you keep an eye on them. The company’s monitoring and alerting service gives Web developers and system administrators a 24×7 view of the performance and availability of their apps that use EC2 and Amazon’s Simple Storage Service. IT staff can be notified when performance drops.

Webmetrics also monitors performance of Amazon Web Services, including EC2, S3, SQS and E-Commerce Service. The company says its GlobalWatch provides a “holistic,” real-time view so that businesses can better meet demands. Webmetrics also has a service, called SiteStress, which lets you simulate your applications running on EC2 so you can make adjustments for better performance.

Simplifying the job of building application stacks for use in virtual environments such as EC2 is a job for Elastic Server On-Demand (ESOD), says CohesiveFT. The company’s online service is a kind of content management system for assembling and customizing components in a variety of “virtualization-ready” formats. ESOD does “within minutes” what normally takes days, the company says.

Developers who want to create software appliances that run on EC2 can do so with rBuilder from rPath. Use rBuilder to generate the Amazon Machine Image, then upload it to S3, where it’s available on demand. Anyone with an EC2 account can then use that appliance.

It probably doesn’t get any easier than this. Atlantic Dominion Solutions offers dedicated management of RightScale-based EC2 deployments. If there’s a glitch, ADS says, it will notify you and make the appropriate corrections.

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