Tag Archives: cloud computing

Microsoft’s super-exciting Sky TV on Xbox with social interaction

I’m watching Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer present a session on cloud computing. It’s been underwhelming so far, but I was interested to see how Sky TV will look on Xbox 360 (though I’d readily swap it for BBC iPlayer, which Microsoft seems to be obstructing). The key point: you can watch with your Xbox Live friends and interact during the broadcast.

The broadcast was coming all the way from the UK to west coast USA, which was apparently why the avatars spent some time watching a buffering thermometer. Still, it worked eventually.

image

More on Ballmer’s cloud perspective later.

VMWare: the cloud is private

I attended this morning’s VMWare roundtable, debating the rather silly proposition that IT should be removed from the boardroom agenda. To be fair, even VMWare does not really believe this, but is arguing that its virtualisation technology makes IT service provision so trouble-free that the board can focus on IT as it advances their business, rather than just keeping the show on the road. I don’t believe that either, though no doubt it can help. It was nevertheless interesting to hear Jim Fennell, Information Systems Manager for the Lagan Group, explain how his virtual infrastructure allowed him to run up servers or applications such as SharePoint on demand, with internal charges based on usage.

The very definition of a private cloud, in fact; and this chimed nicely with some other research I’ve been doing on cloud security. Current cloud computing models are flawed, for the following reason among others.

So-called private clouds do not relieve organisations of the IT burden, though they may simplify it, and do not fully yield the benefits of multi-tenancy, elasticity and economies of scale except perhaps in the case of the largest enterprises, or governments.

On the other hand, public clouds are also flawed, because the customer retains legal responsibility for their data but loses operational responsibility. That split surfaces in debates about SLAs, legal liability and consequential loss, compliance with regulations concerning data location and segregation, and conflicts over whether customers should have the right to audit their cloud provider’s technology and security practices. The public cloud is not yet mature; it lacks the standards and regulatory frameworks that it needs, though work is being done.

VMWare may not mind about this, because it has positioned itself as the first choice for technology to drive private clouds. I talked to Chief Operating Office Tod Nielsen (formerly of Microsoft) after the event, and he told me that the majority of enquiries from potential customers relate to setting up private cloud infrastructures.

Another big growth area is desktop virtualisation, where customers with thousands of aging PCs running Windows XP want their next desktop upgrade to be their last, and see virtual desktops as a route to that goal.

I am intrigued by the desktop issue, since maintaining desktop PCs remains a significant maintenance challenge. The rise of non-PC devices is also relevant here. Isn’t the future more in pure web applications – perhaps enhanced with RIA technologies like Flash and Silverlight – rather than in virtual desktops? Nielsen said that the huge numbers of legacy applications out there made this impossible in the near future.

Nevertheless, you can see how VMWare is planning for more of a pure web play longer term, with acquisitions such as the Java application framework Springsource. One idea that was mentioned during the roundtable was a sort of server app market, where you can plug in pre-built applications into VMWare’s ESX platform.

Finally, one side-effect of increasing desktop virtualisation, in Nielsen’s view, is that more users will choose to run Apple Macs as the host. He also says that the number one customer request, in the weeks since Apple’s announcement, is for iPad support for their virtual clients. Make of that what you will.

Pros and cons of Adobe’s LiveCycle services in the cloud

Adobe has fully released LiveCycle Managed Services, offering a hosted platform for LiveCycle applications. The software is configured and managed by Adobe, but runs on Amazon’s EC2 (Elastic Compute Cloud) virtual servers.

LiveCycle is a suite of applications which I think of as two things combined. On the one hand, it forms a server platform for business process or workflow applications based on Adobe PDF forms and documents. On the other hand, it provides data services for Rich Internet Applications, usually but not necessarily to client applications on the Flash runtime, either in or out of the browser. It is a little confusing, but these two aspects are essentially the old Adobe Enterprise platform merged with Macromedia’s work in support of Flash, combined into one suite after Adobe’s takeover of Macromedia in 2005.

The usual arguments in favour of hosted services apply and this is a smart move from Adobe. Still, customers are currently forced to use Amazon for the actual virtual servers, even though others such as Rackspace Cloud Servers are substantially cheaper than Amazon EC2. Is that a problem? According to Adobe’s John Carione, senior enterprise product marketing manager at Adobe, “when we were evaluating vendors, we think that one of the areas Amazon excels in is around security.” I noticed that the security topic also occupies around one-third of this introductory video, suggesting that this remains a significant barrier to adoption for many potential customers.

So how will managed LiveCycle work? “We’re providing a fully managed service, and part of that is going to be delivered with what we’re calling  the Adobe Network Operations Center … which is going to provide 24×7 monitoring of the applications, backup and recovery, upgrades. They’ll be one contact at Adobe to talk to about everything,” says Carione. Apparently the Network Operations Center is based on a piece aquired with Omniture last year. Ominiture was a web analytics business which was based on hosted applications and services; maybe that was an important factor driving the acquisition.

When I asked Carione about ease of scaling, I got a slightly defensive answer. “This is a v1, we have the opportunity for customers to buy additional instances. In the future we’ll have more of that dynamic scaling.” Another issue is integrating with on-premise resources such as databases and directory services, which Carione says is a matter for business integrators; in other words, a significant challenge. And what if Amazon goes down? Carione did not answer directly, but said that 99.5% uptime is guaranteed.

Google storage 10 times cheaper than Azure – but not as cheap as Skydrive

According to Jerry Huang of Gladinet, whose Cloud Desktop exposes a variety of cloud storage services as mapped drives in Windows Explorer, Google storage is “about 10 times cheaper” than Windows Azure. Since Amazon S3 has similar prices to Azure, I imagine Google undercuts that by some margin as well.

Gladinet compares Google and Azure using some other criteria as well. On speed, it gave the edge to Azure but observed that it might just depend which data center was nearest. On SLA, the two seem similar.  On API, it says Azure is easier if you use Visual Studio, but not if you work with “PHP, Ruby or anything other than .NET”.

In another post, Huang has a nice summary of accessing Azure storage from C#.

It’s worth noting that Microsoft Skydrive offers a relatively generous 25GB of storage for free, but there is no way to extend this limit.  There is also no official Skydrive API, though one has been hacked unofficially. Gladinet supports Skydrive too, using either this or the unofficial WebDAV support.

I am a fan of Gladinet. There is a free starter edition, or paid-for with extra features.

image

Explorer integration is a big deal, since it means any application with a standard open or save dialog can access the files. Imagine for example that you need to upload a document from cloud storage to a web site. Without Explorer integration, you have to extract the file from cloud storage to your local drive, then upload it from there. The same is true of SharePoint, which is why it is unfortunate that Explorer integration is so difficult to get working.

Windows 7 booms for Microsoft, everything else is flat

Microsoft has had a bumper quarter driven by Windows 7, as expected. I’ve put this into a table as I have before.

Quarter ending December 31st 2009 vs quarter ending December 31st 2008, $millions

Segment Revenue % change Profit % change
Client (Windows + Live) 6904 69.9 5394 98.9
Server and Tools 3844 0.24 1491 8.4
Online 581 4.60 -466 -49.5
Business (Office) 4745 -2.78 3010 -0.36
Entertainment and devices 2902 -10.87 375 288.5

The poor performance of Vista meant latent demand for Windows 7, as both individuals and organisations deferred upgrades, which was unleashed in this quarter. Microsoft said it was a “record quarter for Windows units” and “the fastest selling operating system in history”. Windows 7 is also a strong product in its own right.

There isn’t much else to cheer about, though given the general weakness of the server market the sliver of growth there is impressive. There is still no sign of a profitable online business, which is of major concern as interest in cloud computing accelerates.

Entertainment (Xbox) is now a steady business; I’m guessing that the huge growth in profits reflects lower investment and a reduction in cost of fixing endless red rings of death thanks to better quality hardware. Revenue on the other hand is somewhat down.

Windows 7 will continue to do well, though once the upgrade bump is passed the results will be less spectacular. Windows 8 will not get the same easy ride, unless Microsoft delivers something that surprises us all with its excellence.

The positive spin on these figures is that the company still has an opportunity to reinvent itself, financed by Windows profits. It needs its own iPod equivalent to show that it can escape its Windows and Office legacy. Windows Mobile 7? Laugh if you like; but the two things with obvious growth potential in the market generally are mobile devices, and cloud computing – the two go together, of course. That said, there is no evidence yet that Microsoft has the energy and agility to reverse its poor performance to date in both areas.

Who knows, perhaps after a couple of months of mobile focus, with details to be revealed shortly at Mobile World Congress and Mix10, the picture will look more promising?

Windows Azure is too expensive for small apps

I’m researching Windows Azure development; and as soon as you check out early feedback one problem jumps out immediately. Azure is prohibitively expensive for small applications.

Here’s a thread that makes the point:

Currently I’m hosting 3 relatively small ASP.net web applications on a VPS. This is costing about $100 per month. I’m considering transitioning to Azure.
Q: Will I need to have 1 azure instance per each ASP.net application? So if I have 3 web apps, then I will need to run 3 instances which costs about $300 per month minimum, correct?

The user is correct. Each application consumes an “instance”, costing from $0.12 per hour, and this cost is incurred whenever the application is available.

Amazon also charges $0.12 per hour for a Windows instance; but the Amazon instance is a virtual machine. You can run as many applications on there as you like, until it chokes.

Google App Engine has a free quota for getting started, and then it is charged according to CPU time. If the app is idle, you don’t pay.

In addition, all these services charge extra for storage and data transfer; but in a low-usage application these are likely to be a small proportion of the total.

Summary: Azure’s problem is that it does not scale down in a way that makes business sense. There is no free quota, unless you count what is bundled with an MSDN subscription.

I realise that it is hard to compare like with like. A cheap Windows plan with a commodity ISP will cost less than either Amazon EC2 or Azure, but it is worth less, because you don’t get a complete VM as with Amazon, or a managed platform as with Azure, or the scalability of either platform. The point though is that by cutting out smaller businesses, and making small apps excessively expensive for customers of any size – even enterprises run small apps – Azure is creating a significant deterrent to adoption and will lose out to its rivals.

Check out the top feature request for Azure right now: Make it less expensive to run my very small service.

New HP and Microsoft agreement commits $50 million less than similar 2006 deal

I’ve held back comment on the much-hyped HP and Microsoft three-year deal announced on Wednesday mainly because I’ve been uncertain of its significance, if any. It didn’t help that the press release was particularly opaque, full of words with many syllables but little meaning. I received the release minutes before the conference call, during which most of us were asking the same thing: how is this any different from what HP and Microsoft have always done?

It’s fun to compare and contrast with this HP and Microsoft release from December 2006 – three years ago:

We’ve agreed to a three-year, US$300 million investment between our two companies, and a very aggressive go-to-market program on top of that. What you’ll see us do is bring these solutions to the marketplace in a very aggressive way, and go after our customers with something that we think is quite unique in what it can do to change the way people work.

$300 million for three years in 2006; $250 million for three years in 2010. Hmm, not exactly the new breakthrough partnership which has been billed. Look here for what the press release should have said: it’s mainly common-sense cooperation and joint marketing.

Still, I did have a question for CEOs Mark Hurd and Steve Ballmer which was what level of cloud focus was in this new partnership, drawing these remarks from Ballmer:

The fact that our two companies are very directed at the cloud is the driving force behind this deal at this time. The cloud really means a modern architecture for how you build and deploy applications. If you build and deploy them to our service that we operate that’s called Windows Azure. If a customer deploys them inside their own data centre or some other hosted environment, they need a stack on which to build, hardware software and services, that instances the same application model that we’ll have on Windows Azure. I think of it as the private cloud version of Windows Azure.

That thing is going to be an integrated stack from the hardware, the virtualization layer, the management layer and the app model. It’s on that that we are focusing the technical collaboration here … we at Microsoft need to evangelize that same application model whether you choose to host in the the cloud or on your own premises. So in a sense this is entirely cloud motivated.

Hurd added his insistence that this is not just more of the same:

I would not want you to write that it sounds a lot like what Microsoft and HP have been talking about for years. This is the deepest level of collaboration and integration and technical work we’ve done that I’m aware of … it’s a different thing that what you’ve seen before. I guarantee Steve and I would not be on this phone call if this was just another press release from HP and Microsoft.

Well, you be the judge.

I did think Ballmer’s answer was interesting though, in that it shows how much Microsoft (and no doubt HP) are pinning their hopes on the private cloud concept. The term “private cloud” is a dubious one, in that some of the defining characteristics of cloud – exporting your infrastructure, multi-tenancy, shifting the maintenance burden to a third-party – are simply not delivered by a private cloud. That said, in a large organisation they might look similar to most users.

I can’t shake off the thought that since HP wants to carry on selling us servers, and Microsoft wants to carry on selling us licences for Windows and Office, the two are engaged in disguised cloud avoidance. Take Office Web Apps in Office 2010 for example: good enough to claim the online document editing feature; bad enough to keep us using locally installed Office.

That will not work long-term and we will see increasing emphasis on Microsoft’s hosted offerings, which means HP will sell fewer servers. Maybe that’s why the new deal is for a few dollars less than the old one.

Store any type of file in Google Apps – in effect, GDrive

Google has announced a new feature – the ability to upload any type of file to its online storage.

Over the next couple of weeks, we are rolling out the ability for Google Apps users to easily upload and securely share any type of file internally and externally using Google Docs. You get 1 GB of storage per user, and you can upload files up to 250 MB in size…Combined with shared folders in Google Docs, the upload feature is a great way to collaborate on files with coworkers and external parties.

Additional storage is available at $0.25/GB/yr according to this post.

Is this “GDrive” – the long-rumoured generic online storage from Google? Pretty much. Note however that Microsoft’s excellent SkyDrive already offers 25 GB of unrestricted online storage for free.

Enterprise customers who use the Premier Edition of Google Apps are also getting this service, but at a higher price: additional storage is $3.50/gb (or €3.00/gb in the EU). This storage is accessible via the Google Documents List Data API, enabling developers to create applications that backup or synchronise files between Google and client devices, and is therefore more comparable to Amazon’s Simple Storage Service (S3). Amazon has no free offering but S3 is modestly priced at $0.15 per GB per month, between Google’s consumer and business pricing, though note that Amazon also charges for data transfer.

Once third-parties do their stuff to make this look like any other network folder, this looks like a handy new feature. One advantage is that you can store Microsoft Office files in their native format, rather than having to convert them to Google documents with loss of fidelity.

It may also mean less usage for a popular workaround – emailing attachments to yourself in GMail.

Update: post revised to include information on Premier Edition.

Chrome OS: will Google keep its vision?

I spent some time with Chrome OS over the weekend and yesterday, first doing my own build of the open source Chromium OS, and then running it and writing a review.

The build process was interesting: you actually compile Chromium OS from a chroot virtual environment. My first efforts were unsuccessful, for two reasons. First, Chromium OS assumes the presence of a pre-built Chromium (the browser), so you have to either build Chromium first, or download a pre-built version. However, the Chromium build has to be customised for Chromium OS. I did manage to build Chromium, but it failed to run, with what looked like a gtk version error, so I gave up and downloaded a zip.

Chromium OS itself I did build successfully, though I ran into an error that needed this patch, which I applied manually. I was using the latest code from the git repository at the time. I expect that this problem has been fixed now though you may run into different ones; life on the bleeding edge can be painful.

I also had difficulty logging in. You are meant to log in with a Google account, which presumes a live internet connection at least on the first occasion. Although Chromium OS successfully used the ethernet connection on my laptop, getting an IP address and successfully pinging internet sites, the login still failed with a “Network not connected” error. Studying the logs revealed a certificate error. You can also create a backdoor user at build time, so I did that instead.

Once I got Chromium OS up and running, booting from a USB key, I found it mostly worked OK. It is a fascinating project, because of Google’s determination to avoid local application installs, thereby gaining better security as well as driving the user towards web solutions for all their needs.

That’s a bold vision, but also an annoying one. Normally, when reviewing something relevant like an operating system or a word processor, I try to write the review in the product I am testing. In fact, I am writing this post in Chromium OS. However, I could not write my review on Chromium OS, because I needed screenshots; and although there are excellent web-based image editing tools, I could not find a way to take screenshots and paste or upload them into those tools. The solution I adopted was to run Chromium OS in a virtual machine – I used VirtualBox – and take the screenshots from the host operating system.

It is a small point; but makes me wonder whether Google will end up bundling just a few local utilities to make the web-based life a little easier. If it does so, third parties will want to add their own; and Google will be under pressure to abandon its idea of no local application installs.

Another interesting point: the rumour is that Google will unify Chrome OS  with Android, which does allow application installs. Can that happen without providing a way to run Android apps on Chrome?

Chromium OS includes a calculator utility, which opens in a panel. Mine does not work though; I get a blank panel with the URL http://welcome-cros.appspot.com/calculator.html – which seems to be a broken link. Still, is that really a sensible way to provide a calculator? What about offline – will it work from a Gears local web server, or as a static HTML page with a JavaScript calculator, or will it not work at all?

I will be interested to see whether Google ends up compromising a little in order to improve the usability and features of its new OS.