Category Archives: business process

Of cloud and factories

The most common metaphor for cloud computing is that it’s like your electric power company. Flick the switch on, log in to your cloud service, pay for what you use, log out, flick the switch off, go to sleep. Well, it’s a bit more complicated that that.

Power companies offer a single product: Electric Power. How many variations are there? Compare them to the myriad cloud offerings: Infrastructure as a service (virtual machines, Windows or Linux), Storage as a service (online, backup, archiving), Software (everything). To me, it looks more like manufacturing and selaling cars. And the cloud business has striking similarities to car manufacturing: Just assume that every car manufactured and sold is a month of a cloud service – any kind cloud service. What are the analogies?

  1. The infrastructure that powers a cloud service is like a car factory. There is an assembly line, pumping out a particular car model/cloud service. In both cases, the product is as good as the materials it’s made of and the quality of the manufacturing process. Also, the pricing catalog varies accordingly.
  2. Cars shipped out of the factory need an extended and reliable transport network, like rail, ports, RORO ships and so on. The same is true with cloud services: Since they are delivered over the Internet, cloud providers need multihoming (peering with at least two Tier-1 or Tier-2 providers), low latency and high bandwidth.
  3. Economies of scale and just in time production: The more cars you build and sell, the cheaper they are. Same thing with cloud services (Amazon Web Services). Also, adding more capacity as you grow is the only sustainable model for cloud providers – the analogy in the car industry is just in time production.
  4. Go to market: Building a cloud service is one thing, selling it is another. All car brands have an extensive network of resellers and dealers, cloud service providers rely also on partners and heavy Internet advertising and market awareness to bring in the sales volume to sustain their business. And volume is key to cloud services, just as it is in the car industry.
  5. Product qualities: Cars come in all sizes, shapes, colours, equipment. The same applies to cloud services. They all look alike (for example, all cloud service providers offer Windows servers), they do the same job, but what really matters is performance, capacity and reliability. What qualities would you look for if you were on the market for a new car?
  6. Common technology: Have you opened the hood of an Audi, Skoda, VW and Seat? The mechanics are the same, but the badges are different. Moreover, three technologies (soon to be four) power all cars on the globe: Gasoline, Diesel, hybrid (and electric in a few years from now). Guess what, it’s the same with cloud computing. There are only a handful of hypervisors and automation platforms that power most cloud service providers, yet, every provider has their own look and feel.

The perfect analogy would be the factory this gentleman used to run:

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Bring out your (virtual) dead

Virtualization is cool. Especially for someone that was used to racking, cabling, imaging, installing apps, adding memory, swapping disks powering on/off and the rest. Jumping to vCenter (or XenCenter or virtmanager) is like scuttling your sailboat and getting aboard a hovercraft. We all love it!

Yet, as soon as you pass the thirty-forty virtual machine mark, something happens. Quite naturally, your virtual infrastructure goes into yellow, then orange, then red. Memory utilization is the first to suffer, then your thin provisioning disk array starts to fill up… Days before your virtual farm shuts down or refuses to deploy new virtual machines, you realize that lots of virtual servers are useless – and orphans: You don’t know why they are there.

This is called virtual sprawl. You have lots of “virtual assets” taking up CPU, memory, IP addresses and disk blocks for nothing; they just sit there. Worst, you don’t touch them because they are not yours. How do you clean up?

Oh, he is dead - No, I am not - Yes, you are

How do you control who has the right to create a VM, how long it is used and when it is time to let it go? Virtual infrastructure management tools usually leave the VM lifecycle management aside: What they do best is managing the hypervisors, not your IT policies and business procedures. Options?

The answer here is “private cloud management”. What is required is an automation layer on top of your hypervisor and virtual centers, which implements business procedures, capacity planning, virtual lifecycle management and end user self service portals. A nifty tool is Embotics vCommander, sitting atop your VMware infrastructure and letting your internal customers order a VM, have it approved by their supervisor, charged for its use and specify a decomissioning date. In addition, it can do capacity planning and let you know when you will be out of infrastructure.

Another option is enterprise private/public cloud platform. Abiquo is one of them, able to span across all hypervisors (HyperV, VMware, Xen, Oracle VirtualBox and KVM) with fine grained user control and resource tiering.

Whatever you choose, it is a good practice to have your virtual users accountable for the virtual assets they own and use. Adding a note on their virtual machine summary in vCenter or utilizing a private cloud controller, it is a practice that will pay off in the mid term.