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16 December 2008

Dipping my toe in the clouds

By Andrew Clifford

Although it is still early days for cloud computing, offerings such as Amazon's Elastic Computing Cloud (EC2) are becoming viable for mainstream use.

We need to upgrade the servers that run our Metrici Advisor service. One option we have been considering is cloud computing, which lets you consume what you need from a "cloud" of computing power. It is tempting for small companies because it combines low startup costs with huge scalability. (The 3Tera website provides an excellent Forrester report on cloud computing, registration required.)

We looked briefly at some of the main players, to see who could provide the equivalent of the servers that we currently use. Most vendors are not there yet, or only offer servers for specific types of web application, rather than providing general-purpose servers.

For example, Google's offering is currently very limited around their technologies. The major hosting provider RackSpace acquired Mosso for its cloud computing. But if you look closely, their "cloud servers" are still in "active development".

We did find one large, generally available, general-purpose cloud computing provider that caters for entry-level needs: Amazon (the people who sell books).

Amazon's cloud computing is branded the Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2). EC2 allows you to rent virtual servers in the cloud, starting at $0.10 per hour. It can be used alongside their other offerings, particularly their Simple Storage Service (S3) data storage. It provides support for many different operating systems, including both Windows and Linux.

Amazon EC2 is initially daunting, but commissioning new servers always is. You use an Amazon Machine Image (AMI) as a template for your new server, and add your own software and configuration. You can save your configured server as a new AMI, and create more server instances from that. There are options for setting network connectivity, including assigning IP addresses and firewall options. All this is done from your PC using a command line tool.

There are some differences between EC2 and running your own server. The entire server - including all "disk" storage - is deleted when the server is stopped (reboots are OK). There are options to copy data to Amazon S3, or to use the Amazon Elastic Block Store (EBS), which acts as persistent disks for your server.

I'm not much of a systems administrator, but it only took me a couple of hours to create a server and recreate the Metrici Advisor service on this. The new server performed very well, and I can see how the service could be used to build an effective platform for Metrici Advisor.

From what I have seen, Amazon EC2 would work very well indeed for its main targets: organisations that need to commission multiple servers quickly to support large web sites. It would be particularly useful for temporary server needs - such as testing, training, or major data conversion exercises. You could run a seriously large installation using this type of infrastructure, without the cost and delay of providing your own servers.

Although cloud computing is still in its infancy, my little paddle into it has shown me that it can be cheap, flexible and effective. I think it is a technology that is becoming viable for mainstream use.

Next: Don't ignore your database, use it

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