Category Archives: amazon

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Open Cloud Manifesto – but from a closed group?

I’ve read the Open Cloud Manifesto with interest. It’s hard to find much to disagree with; I especially like this point on page 5:

Cloud providers must not use their market position to lock customers into their particular platforms and limit their choice of providers.

Companies like IBM won’t do that? I’m sceptical. Still, it is all very vague; and companies not on the list of supporters have been quick to point out the lack of any effort to achieve cross-industry consensus:

Very recently we were privately shown a copy of the document, warned that it was a secret, and told that it must be signed "as is," without modifications or additional input.  It appears to us that one company, or just a few companies, would prefer to control the evolution of cloud computing, as opposed to reaching a consensus across key stakeholders

says Microsoft’s Steve Martin. Amazon, perhaps the most prominent cloud computing pioneer, is another notable absentee.

It is a general truth that successful incumbents rarely strive for openness; whereas competitors who want to grow their market share frequently demand it.

The manifesto FAQ says:

There are many reasons why companies may not be listed. This moved quickly and some companies may not have been reached or simply didn’t have time to make it through their own internal review process.

A poor excuse. If a few more months would have added Microsoft, Amazon, Google and Salesforce.com to the list, it would have been well worth it and added hugely to its impact.

That said, I’ve found Amazon reluctant to talk about interoperability between clouds, while Salesforce.com makes no secret of its lock-in:

… you are making a platform decision, and our job is to make sure you choose our platform and not another platform, because once they have chosen another platform, getting them off it is usually impossible.

said CEO Marc Benioff when I quizzed him on the subject. I guess it could have taken more than a few months.

Amazon MP3 store is much cheaper than Apple iTunes

The Amazon MP3 store has arrived in the UK, and I’ve noticed that it is much cheaper than Apple iTunes for many items, particularly when buying complete albums. Here’s an example: Day & Age by Killers. £7.99 on iTunes:

and £3.00 on Amazon:

That’s 62% cheaper. Amazon also sells the CD for £8.98. Since you get more for your money with a CD (no lossy compression, physical backup and sleeve notes, transferable rights) that strikes me as about right.

The MP3 format is also more convenient than iTunes AAC, since it is supported by more devices.

I’m intrigued though. Why is Amazon so much cheaper? A last-ditch effort by the industry to create serious competition for Apple?

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Salesforce.com linking with Facebook, Amazon

I’m at the Dreamforce conference in San Francisco, where Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce.com, and co-founder Parker Harris, are presenting new features in the force.com platform.

The first is a built-in ability to publish your Force.com data as a public web site. The service is currently in “developer preview” and set for full release in 2009. Even in preview, it’s priced per page view on your site. For example, if you have the low-end Group Edition, you get 50,000 page views free; but if you exceed that limit, you pay $1000 per month for up to 1,000,000 further page views. It would be unfortunate if you had 50,001 page views one month.

The second announcement relates to Facebook integration. This is a set of tools and services that lets you use Facebook APIs within a Force.com application, and create Facebook applications that use force.com data. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO, says this is “Enterprise meets social”. The problem: Facebook is consumer-focused, more play than work. Sandberg says this deal will launch Facebook into the Enterprise. This will be an interesting one to watch.

Third, there are new tools linking Force.com with Amazon’s S3 and EC2. Tools for S3 wrap Amazon’s API with Apex code (Apex is the language of Force.com) so you can easily add unlimited storage to your Force.com application. Tools for EC2 delivers pre-built Amazon Virtual Machines (AMIs) that have libraries for accessing Force.com data and applications. The first AMI is for PHP, and simplifies the business of building a PHP application that extends a Force.com solution.

Interesting that Salesforce.com is providing two new ways to build public web sites that link to Force.com – one on its own platform, the other using PHP and in future Ruby, Java (I presume) etc.

It’s worth noting that you could already do this by using the SOAP API for Force.com, and there are already wrappers for languages including PHP. This is mainly about simplifying what you could already do.

More information is at developer.force.com.

Amazon’s cloud services growing up, sending out spam

Amazon made multiple cloud announcements yesterday, just ahead of anything Microsoft might be pitching at PDC next week. The Elastic Compute Cloud is out of beta; there’s beta support for Windows 32-bit or 64-bit at $0.125 per hour; there’s a new web-based management console; and new automatic load balancing and scaling.

The last points may be the most significant. Smooth scaling is one of the toughest problems for any enterprise or busy web site. On demand scaling is totally compelling.

There’s still something missing. What if the service goes down? SLAs, sure, but saying to the boss “we’ve got an SLA” is little help if your business is losing thousands every hour through unavailability. I’d like to see something about failover to a non-Amazon service, or some convincing reason why we won’t see repeats of the downtime that has afflicted Amazon a couple of times already this year.

Here’s another sign the service is growing up. WordPress comment moderation shows me some basic info about the source IP of comment posters, and I noticed an item of spam yesterday that was sourced from an Amazon EC2 server:

No, it wasn’t one of the new Windows VMs! I traced it to a Swedish site running Plone, emailed the company to point out the problem but haven’t yet had a response. The spam itself makes no sense; probably a test.

Update: I received an explanation from the site:

We have been running a proxy on EC2 that rewrites certain websites for demo purposes. It has just been up for a few days, but it seems that someone thought it was a nice way to relay spam (we only proxy port 80, so just the message board kind).

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Amazon fails to address interoperability concerns; Flexiscale plans cloud platform

Just attended a session here at FOWA from Amazon’s Jeff Barr and Flexiscale’s Tony Lucas on cloud computing. These vendors have similar offerings (in kind, but not in scale; Flexiscale is tiny by comparison). Lucas had told me he would talk about interoperability between Amazon and Flexiscale but did not do so, nor did Barr mention it.

I took the opportunity to get in some questions at the informal gathering after the session. The context is that Amazon has had serious outages this year, which will not have gone unnoticed by organizations considering its platform; the ability to import and export AMI’s (Amazon Machine Instances) would help users to implement failover plans. Is either Amazon or Flexiscale considering support for the Open Virtual Machine Format (OVF), used by VMWare?

Neither is doing so. Lucas muttered something about standards driven by commercial agendas; Barr said Amazon would wait and see and did not want to standardise too early; and that customers were not asking for it.

What interested me was the intense interest from other developers who had come up to ask questions, in this topic of interoperability and avoiding lock-in. This makes me wary of Barr’s comment that there is little interest.

In mitigation, Lucas said that his company can already import AMIs, but does not do so because it might breach Amazon’s terms and conditions. Barr pointed out that AMIs are just Linux VMs so you can easily migrate their contents. Both good points. Nevertheless, it strikes me that VMWare’s vCloud offering goes beyond either Amazon or Flexiscale in this respect.

Lucas made a couple of other observations. He said that Google’s BigTable, which sits underneath the AppEngine API, is not open source and makes  it impossible to implement AppEngine on his platform. He added that Flexiscale was always conceived as a platform offering, not just on-demand virtual servers, and will announce a platform based on a 100% open source stack shortly (aside from the Windows version; sounds like there will both Linux and Windows available).

Windows comes to Amazon’s cloud

You will soon be able to run Windows on Amazon’s Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2), in a fully supported manner. Jeff Barr says this is scheduled for public release by the end of 2008:

The 32 and 64 bit versions of Windows Server will be available and will be able to use all existing EC2 features such as Elastic IP Addresses, Availability Zones, and the Elastic Block Store. You’ll be able to call any of the other Amazon Web Services from your application. You will, for example, be able to use the Amazon Simple Queue Service to glue cross-platform applications together.

This opens up EC2 to a substantial new group of potential customers. They will be asking, of course, if the cloud can be made reliable.

Now, how about integrating with Hyper-V and/or VMware so you could easily move your servers in and out of the cloud?

Making the cloud reliable

Like “Web 2.0”, the term “Cloud computing” is one that nobody much likes, but is hard to avoid. Argue all you like; but there are real and significant changes, and we need to call it something.

I wrote a piece in today’s Guardian which looks at some of the issues. Tony Lucas at Flexiscale, a cloud computing provider, makes the point that “occasional large outages are actually more likely than small ones”. His words were prophetic; I spoke to him shortly before Flexiscale itself went offline for two days. That’s unacceptable for anything business-critical; there has to be a plan B. SLAs by the way are not the answer; they promise some level of compensation in the event of failure, but this is typically miniscule in comparison to the business consequences.

Virtualization could be the answer. If your virtual servers at one provider go offline, just bring them up with another provider. That implies interoperability; and if this interests you, note that Amazon’s Jeff Barr is speaking on this subject with Lucas at the Future of Web Apps conference in London next month. Another development is VMware’s vCloud, which promises to “federate between on-premise and off-premise clouds” with its vServices. VMware is also a big supporter of the Open Virtual Machine Format (OVF), a format for portable virtual machines. If the reliability problem is solved, it will remove a key barrier to adoption of this kind of on-demand computing.

Running Oracle on Amazon’s cloud

Amazon has announced a partnership with Oracle, to run Oracle’s database and middleware products on Amazon’s Elastic Computer Cloud (EC2). Specifically, the products are Oracle Database 11g, Oracle Fusion Middleware, Oracle Enterprise Manager; and for the OS, Oracle Enterprise Linux. A key feature is that both Amazon and Oracle offer full support for these products and configurations. Amazon’s web services are growing up.

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Defining cloud computing

I liked this post by Larry Dignan on the cloud computing buzzword and how meaningless it has become.

Writing on the subject recently, I was struck by the gulf between what some people mean – online apps like Google Apps and Gmail – and what others mean, on-demand utility computing such as that delivered by Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud or Flexiscale. These things have little in common.

Dignan has even more examples.

Should we abandon the term? Maybe, but I find it useful if only as shorthand for describing how the centre of gravity is shifting to the Internet.

Some services are more cloudy than others. Dignan refers to this Forrester report (though you’ll have to look at the blog post for the extracts, unless you want to buy it) which has a table of “six key characteristics.” I don’t agree with all of them; the business model, for example, is not an inherent part of cloud computing. I am interested in number two:

Accessible via Internet protocols from any computer

Any computer? OK, probably not the Atari ST which I have in the loft. Any computer with a web browser? What about requiring a “modern” web browser, is that OK? Java? Flash? Silverlight? A specific version of Java or Flash? What about when we need a runtime like Adobe AIR or Microsoft Live Mesh? What if it doesn’t run on Linux? Or on an Apple iPhone? What about when there is an offline component such as Google Gears? All these things narrow what is meant by “any computer”.

This is the old “rich versus reach” debate; it is still being played out. My point: cloud computing isn’t a boolean characteristic, but a continuum from very cloudy (NTP) to not cloudy at all (Microsoft Office).

Amazon S3 grumbles

Lukas Biewald of Facestat says Amazon S3, which is business-critical, is his #1 cause of failure:

Using Amazon’s S3 has about the same cost and complexity as hosting the images ourselves, but we had thought that the reliability of Amazon would be significantly higher. But that now seems wrong….It’s astonishing that serving content off our own boxes can be more reliable than serving content off of Amazon.

He’s also discovered that the SLA is not worth much – the business cost of the recent 7 hour downtime is far in excess of the 25% fee rebate.

S3 is cheap. Personally I think it is unrealistic to make S3 your storage service, have no plan B, and expect high reliability.

Amazon has a case to answer too. Salesforce.com has now just about lived down its 2005 outages; but incidents like these are terrible publicity for any cloud provider.

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