September 1st, 2011

Clouds On A Plane: VMware’s Micro Cloud Foundry Brings PaaS To My Laptop

On the eve of this week’s VMworld conference in Las Vegas, VMware announced that Micro Cloud Foundry is finally available for general distribution. This new offering is a completely self-contained instantiation of the company’s Cloud Foundry PaaS solution, which I wrote about earlier this spring. Micro Cloud Foundry comes packaged as a virtual machine, easily distributable on a USB key (as they proved at today’s session on this topic at VMworld), or as a quick download. The distribution is designed to run locally on your laptop without any external dependencies. This allows developers to code and test Cloud Foundry apps offline, and deploy these to the cloud with little more than some simple scripting. This may be the killer app PaaS needs to be taken seriously by the development community.

The reason Micro Cloud Foundry appeals to me is that it fits well with my own coding style (at least for the small amount of development I still find time to do). My work seems to divide into two different buckets consisting of those things I do locally, and the things I do in the cloud. More often than not, things find themselves in one bucket or the other because of how well the tooling supports my work style for the task at hand.

As a case in point, I always build presentations locally using PowerPoint. If you’ve ever seen one of my presentations, you hopefully remember a lot of pictures and illustrations, and not a lot of bullet points. I’m something of a frustrated graphic designer. I lack any formal training, but I suppose that I share some of the work style of a real designer—notably intense focus, iterative development, and lots of experimentation.

Developing a highly graphic presentation is the kind of work that relies as much on tool capability as it does on user expertise. But most of all, it demands a highly responsive experience. Nothing kills my design cycle like latency. I have never seen a cloud-based tool for presentations that meets all of my needs, so for the foreseeable future, local PowerPoint will remain my illustration tool of choice.

I find that software development is a little like presentation design. It responds well to intense focus and enjoys a very iterative style. And like graphic design, coding is a discipline that demands instantaneous feedback. Sometimes I write applications in a simple text editor, but when I can, I much prefer the power of a full IDE. Sometimes I think that IntelliJ IDEA is the smartest guy in the room. So for many of the same reasons I prefer local PowerPoint for presentations, so too I prefer a local IDE with few if any external dependencies for software development.

What I’ve discovered is that I don’t want to develop in the cloud; but I do want to use cloud services and probably deploy my application into the cloud. I want a local cloud I can work on offline without any external dependency. (In truth, I really do code on airplanes—indeed some of my best work takes place at 35,000 feet.) Once I’m ready to deploy, I want to migrate my app into the cloud without modifying the underlying code.

Until recently, this was hard to do. But it sounds like Micro Cloud Foundry is just what I have been looking for. More on this topic once I’ve had a chance to dig deeply into it.


May 13th, 2011

NIST Seeks Public Input On New Cloud Computing Guide

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What is the cloud, really? Never before have we had a technology that suffers so greatly from such a completely ambiguous name. Gartner Research VP Paolo Malinverno has observed that most organizations define cloud as any application operating outside their own data centre. This is probably as lucid a definition as any I’ve heard.

More formalized attempts to describe cloud rapidly turn into essays that attempt to bridge the abstract with the very specific, and in doing seem to miss the cloud for the clouds. Certainly the most effective comprehensive definition has come from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and most of us in the cloud community have fallen back to this most authoritative reference when clarity is important.

Now is our chance to give back to NIST. To define cloud is to accept a task that will likely never end, and the standards boffins have been working hard to continually refine their work. They’ve asked for public comment, and I would encourage everyone to review their latest draft of the Cloud Computing Synopsis and Recommendations. This new publication builds on the basic definitions offered by NIST in the past, and at around 84 pages, it dives deep into the opportunities and issues surrounding SaaS, IaaS, and PaaS. There is good material here, and with community input it can become even better.

You have until June 13, 2011 to respond.


April 26th, 2011

VMware’s Cloud Foundry Ushers In The Era Of Open PaaS

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Mention VMware to anyone in IT and their immediate thought is virtualization. So dominant is the company in this space that the very word VM has a sense of ambiguity about it: does it refer specifically to a vmdk, or another hypervisor image like Xen? As with Kool-Aid and Band-Aid, there is nothing better for a company than to contribute a word to the English lexicon, and while VMware may not completely own virtual machine, they command enough association to get passed the doorman of that enviable club. Strong associations however, may not translate directly into revenue. From open source Xen to Microsoft’s Hyper-V, virtualization technology is rapidly commoditizing, a threat not lost on VMware. Hypervisors are now largely free, and much of the company’s continued success derives from the sophisticated management products that make mass virtualization a tractable challenge in the enterprise. But for every OpenView, there is ultimately a Nagios to content with, so the successful company is always innovating. VMware, a very successful company, is innovating by continuing its push up the stack. Last week VMware introduced Cloud Foundry, an open Platform-as-a-Service product that represents an important step to transform the company into a dominant PaaS player. You don’t have to read any tea leaves to see this has been their focused strategy for some time; you just have to look at their acquisitions. SpringSource for Java frameworks; RabbitMQ for queuing; Gemstone for scalable, distributed persistence; and Hyperic to manage it all—it’s basically the modern developer’s shopping list of necessary application infrastructure. The only thing they are still missing is security. Cloud Foundry assembles some components of this technology in a package that enables developers to skip the once-necessary evil of infrastructure integration and to instead concentrate fully on the business problems they’ve been tasked to solve. It is a carefully curated stack of cloud-centric frameworks and infrastructure made available by a cloud provider as a service. Right now, you can use Cloud Foundry in VMware-managed cloud; but the basic offering is available for any cloud, public or private. Applications should be easily portable between any instance of Cloud Foundry. VMware even promises a forthcoming micro-cloud VM, which makes any developer’s laptop into a cloud development environment. All of this reduces friction in application development. Computing is full of barriers, and we often fall into the psychological trap of perceiving these to be bigger than they actually are. Barriers are the enemy of agile, and basic infrastructure is a barrier that too often saps the energy out of a new idea before it has a chance to grow. Make the plumbing available, make it simple to use, and half the battle for new apps is over. What’s left is just fun. Cloud Foundry is important because it’s like a more open Azure. Microsoft deserves credit for keeping the PaaS dream alive with their own offering, but Azure suffers from a sense of lock-in, and it really only speaks to the Microsoft community. Plus the Microsoft ad campaign for cloud is so nauseating it might as well be bottled as a developer repellant for people who hate geeks. Cloud Foundry, in contrast, goes far to establish its claim to openness. It references the recently announced Cloud Developer’s Bill of Rights, another initiative spearheaded by VMware. Despite being a Java-head myself, I was encouraged to learn that Cloud Foundry offered not just Spring, but Ruby on Rails, Sinatra for Ruby and Node.js. They also support Grails, as well as other frameworks based on the JVM. Persistence is handled by MySQL, MongoDB, or the Redis database, which is a decent range of options. So while VMware has’t quite opened up all their acquisition portfolio to the cloud community, they have assembled the critical pieces and seem genuine in their goal of erasing the stigma of lock-in that has tarnished previous commercial PaaS offerings. I’m a fan of PaaS; I’m even a member of the club that believes that of the big three *-as-a-Services, PaaS is destined to be the dominant pattern. Managing and configuring infrastructure is, in my mind, pretty much on par with actually managing systems—a task I consider even less rewarding than shoveling manure. And I’m not alone in this opinion either. Once PaaS becomes open and trustworthy, it will be an automatic choice for most development. PaaS is the future of cloud, and VMware knows this.