Reflections on Executive Briefing Event: Cloud & RIA

Last Tuesday, we hosted our first executive briefing on upcoming technology trends.  The first two topics were Cloud Computing and Rich Internet Applications (RIA). We chose those topics because examples of RIA applications are already around, and cloud computing is on the horizon. It was a great mix of present and future discussion.

Nerd Note: My regular readers that are looking for core technology content won’t find it here. Our discussions were on the business issues around these technologies. No code samples here, but there were fantastic architecture and design discussions.

Cloud Computing

I’ll start by saying that I’m personally excited about Cloud Computing. I’m spending time building applications on Azure and Live Framework.

The opening discussion centered around separating the buzzword “Cloud Computing” from the substantive advantages of using a cloud platform. The ‘Cloud Computing’ buzzword has been attached to many different activities: Google Docs can be considered cloud computing.  So can LiveMail, GMail, or zune marketplace.  LiveMesh is clearly a cloud based application. However, for most of us in the Software Development community, we think of cloud computing as having our own applications running in the cloud.  That means Windows Azure, Amazon’s Elastic Computing Platform, or the Google App Engine. Even those this was an executive type of briefing, we are all in the software industry. We build things, so we look at tools in terms of what we can build.

From there, we discussed the risks to moving toward cloud computing. There are many.

Current Investments: A lot of the large enterprises already have significant investment in their own DataCenters. This will change the economics of moving to the cloud.  Should an enterprise retire its datacenter? If so, at what cost? Having already spent all the money to build a data center, cloud computing will take much longer to generate ROI.

Sensitive Data:  Others have discussed this as well,but the main concern here is fear.  Many companies have entered into a trust relationship with their customers that involves how the vendor handles the customers’ data. Most vendors are concerned with offloading that trust relationship to a 3rd party. Regardless of how much trust they may place in that 3rd part already, they still have concerns. Cloud platforms increase this concern because not only is the data offsite, the data is somewhere unknown.  You know, ‘it’s in the cloud’.

Spotty Connectivity:  We developers tend to locate where we have great connectivity.  It’s almost a prerequisite for where we choose to live and work. However, the same isn’t true for all our customers. Some of them still must live in locations where connectivity is not a given. Or, even if there is great connectivity, it may not have high enough uptimes.

But of course, we are excited about building software for the cloud, so what are the drivers to build software there? We are we excited about cloud computing?

Once again, there are a lot of great business drivers for cloud computing.  However, almost all of them turn into one statement:

Cloud Computing is Elastic.

That implies several drivers for moving applications into the cloud. Economics is the greatest force: Under current models, your data center must be built to handle your peak load. You’ll pay for the infrastructure at all times, even at the minimum load for your application. For applications with seasonal implications (retail, tax applications, Olympics, etc) that can be a huge savings.

There are other drivers as well.  Scale is a big one.  We work with some researchers that generate terabytes of data every month. That’s an incredible expense, and cloud based computing can lower the storage costs.

After discussing some of the positives, we did a little comparing on the major announced cloud platforms.  Our index-card sized comparison is this:

  • Amazon’s Elastic Computing is the most immediate on-ramp to the cloud.
  • Google App Engine is a great platform for scripted web applications.
  • Windows Azure is a new OS optimized for cloud computing.

Here’s why we came to that conclusion:  Amazon’s platform is based on the concept of renting a virtual machine image (either Linux or Windows Server). That makes it the smallest distance from any current application architecture. Google App Engine is optimized for scripting web applications. It’s simple to create web apps there. Windows Azure is setup a bit differently, and enables you to think of an app running ‘in the cloud’ as opposed to running ‘on N servers in the cloud’. That makes it a bit more work to take advantage of the capabilities, but could be a bigger win once there.

We finished with an interesting question from one of our customers: “Are we recommending cloud computing, and if so, whose cloud?”

We all weighed in with positive comments.  My own view was that if there weren’t overwhelming negatives (such as resistance to data location), I’ve been recommending cloud based solutions almost exclusively.  Which cloud is trickier. I believe in the Azure vision, because even though you can leverage much of your existing skills, it does make you think about running in a cloud. Therefore, for customers invested in .NET, or open to moving there, it’s my choice. However, it’s not a good idea to recommend porting a large codebase from other platforms (java, php) just to move to Azure.  I know there are some strategies for running those applications in Azure, but I don’t have enough experience there to place big bets on it. And, too many customers with Java or PHP apps have a dependency on MySQL, which doesn’t run in Azure.  When those barriers are in place, Amazon’s Elastic Computing platform makes more sense.

There’s also a lot of interest from larger companies about running the Azure stack in their own data centers. Interestingly, while I understand some of the justification, I think it’s a short term concern.  Why would you run your own version of the Azure stack instead of pushing your application into the immense scale of a world-wide scale cloud?

Rich Internet Applications

One great thing about conducting small seminars is that we can set the agenda and veer off that agenda as energy takes us in different directions. 

On Tuesday we spent more than 3/4 of our time on cloud computing, and finished with a brief look at Rich Internet Applications.

Or rather, we talked about RunKeeper. (www.runkeeper.com) If you run, and you have an iPhone, this is incredibly cool. Take your iPhone on your run, and it maps the distance, and all elevation changes.  We were discussing things like having it monitor your heartbeat, and monitor your speed (which it may do, I forget which features it does, and which we wished it did).

This one was a bit less ‘game changing’ than cloud computing.  The overall consensus was that computer users want more. Better interaction, data from any device, and not constrained by the classic browser / forms metaphor.  That means we may be entering a time when browser based applications will be considered ‘legacy applications’ unless they make use of Ajax, Silverlight, Flex or similar tools. It’s fun to develop applications that have different capabilities.

Closing

This was a wonderful experience. It was fantastic to spend a morning with a tremendous set of brain power, all participating in thoughtful discussions about emerging technologies and how to leverage them to bring more value and more capabilities to our customers.  The best part is that some problems which were considered ‘out of scope’ are suddenly in view.  That’s cool.

Created: 6/19/2009 9:43:22 PM

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