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Microsoft, Amazon, Google, VMware - Cloud Computing Is an Arena for Big Players
I don’t expect small players to stay competitive for long in this game

Joannès Vermorel's Blog

Considering that the price tag for state-of-the art data centers is now reaching $500M, cloud computing is an arena for big players. I don’t expect small players to stay competitive for long in this game. Cloud frameworks are very diverse, and switching from one cloud to another is going to involve massive changes at best and complete rewrite at worst.

My own personal definition of cloud computing is a hosting provider that delivers automated and near real time arbitrary large allocation of computing resources such as CPU, memory, storage and bandwidth.

For companies such as Lokad, I believe that cloud computing will shape many aspects of the software business in the next decade.

Obviously, all cloud computing providers have limits on the amount of resources that one can get allocated, but I want to emphasize that, for the end-user, the cloud is expected to be so large that the limitation is rather the cost of resource allocation, as opposed to hitting technical obstacles such as the need to perform a two-weeks upgrade from one hosting solution to another.

Big players arena

Considering that the ticket for state-of-the art data centers is now reaching $500M, cloud computing is an arena for big players. I don’t expect small players to stay competitive for long in this game.

The current players are

  • Amazon Web Services, probably the first production-ready cloud offer on the market.
  • Google App Engine, a Python cloudy framework by Google.
  • Windows Azure just unveiled by Microsoft a few weeks ago.
  • VMWare specialist of virtualization who unveiled their Cloud vService last September.
  • SalesForces and their Platform as a Service offering. Definitively cloud computing, but mostly restricted to B2B apps oriented toward CRM.

Then, I expect a couple of companies to enter the cloud computing market within the next three years (just wild guesses, I have no insider’s info on those companies).

  • Sun might go for a Java-oriented cloud computing framework, much like Windows Azure, leveraging their VirtualBox product.
  • Yahoo will probably release something based on Hadoop because they have publicly expressed a lot of interest in this area.

There will most probably be a myriad of small players providing tools and utilities built on top of those clouds, but I rather not expect small or medium companies to succeed at gaining momentum with their own grid.

In particular, it’s unclear for me if open-source is going to play any significant role - at the infrastructure level - in the future of cloud computing. Although open-source will present at the application level.

Indeed, open-source is virtually nonexistent in areas such as web search engines (yes, I am aware of Lucene, but it’s very far from being significant on this market). I am expecting a similar situation for the cloud market.

Benefits

Some people are about privacy, security and reliability issues when opting for a cloud provider. My personal opinion on that is that those points are probably among strongest benefits of the cloud.

Indeed, only those who have never managed loads of applications may believe that homemade IT infrastructure management efficiently address privacy, security and reliability concerns. In my experience, achieving a good level of security and reliability is hard for IT-oriented medium-sized companies and much harder for large non-IT-oriented companies.

Also, I am pretty sure that those concerns are among top priorities for big cloud players. A no-name small cloud hosting company can afford a data leak, but for a Google-sized company, the damage caused by such an accident is immense. As a result, the most rational option consists in investing massive amount of efforts to prevent those accidents.

Basically, I think that clouds can significantly reduce the need for system administrators and infrastructure managers by providing a secure and reliable environment where getting security patches and fighting botnets is part of the service.

Drawback: re-design for the cloud

The largest drawback that I can see is the amount of work needed to migrate applications toward clouds. Indeed, cloud hosting is a very different beast compared to regular hosting.

  • Scalability only applies with proper application design - which varies from one cloud to another.
  • Data access latency is large: you need data caching everywhere.
  • ACID properties of your storage are loose at best.

Thus, I expect that the strongest hindering factor for cloud adoption will be the technical challenges caused by the cloud itself.

If you don’t need scalability, hosting on expensive-but-reliable dedicated servers is still the fastest way to bring a software product to the market. Then, if you have happen to have massive computing needs, then you probably have massive sales as well, and well, sales fixes everything.

Computing resources being commoditized? Not so sure.

With all those emerging clouds, will we see a commoditization of the computing resources? I don’t expect it.

Actually, cloud frameworks are very diverse, and switching from one cloud to another is going to involve massive changes at best and complete rewrite at worst. Let’s see

  • Amazon provides on-demand instantiation of real physical servers running either Linux or Windows. No virtualization involved. The code can be natively executed on top of custom OS. Scalability is achieved through programmatic computing node instantiation.
  • Google App Engine provides a Python-only (*) web app framework. Each web request gets treated independently, and scalability is a given. The code is executed in a sandboxed virtual environment. The OS is mostly irrelevant.
  • Windows Azure offers a .NET execution environment associated with IIS. The code is executed in a sandboxed virtual environment on top of a virtualized OS. Scalability is achieved by having working instances “sleeping” and waiting for the surge of incoming work.
  • VMWare takes any OS image and bring it to the cloud. Scalability is limited but other benefits apply.
  • SalesForce provides a specific framework oriented toward enterprise applications.

(*) I guess that Google will probably release a reduced Java framework at some point, much like Android.

Thus, for the next couple of years, choosing a cloud hosting provide would most probably mean a significant vendor lock-in. One more reason not to go for small players.

Since cloud computing will be an emerging market for at least 5 years. YAWG - Yet Another Wild Guess: 18 months to get the cloud offers out of their beta statuses, 18 months to train hordes of developers against those new frameworks, 18 months to write or migrate apps. During this time, I expect aggressive pricing from all actors, and little or no abuse of the “lock-in” power.

Then, when the market matures, I guess that 3rd party providers will provide tools to ease, if not to automate, the migration from one cloud to another much like the Java-.NET conversion tools.

About Joannès Vermorel
Joannès Vermorel is Founder of Lokad. He is passionate about grid computing and statistical learning, and also teaches a software engineering course at the Ecole normale supérieure in Paris, France.

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