The Cloud As Platform

From Innovations, a website published by Ziff-Davis Enterprise from mid-2006 to mid-2009. Reprinted by permission.

Nearly a decade ago, a well-funded startup called Storage Networks promised to revolutionize the data center by moving enterprise storage into the cloud. Customers would keep their production data off-site in a highly secure facility and access it over the Internet. Unfortunately, the concept of cloud computing was unknown at the time, and the Internet itself was neither fast nor robust enough to permit large corporations to get comfortable with the idea. Storage Networks flamed out.

Now EMC is taking a run at a similar idea using the concept of cloud storage. Its technology, called Atmos, offers a glimpse of how far the cloud concept has come in a few short years and how its emergence as a new platform could drive a new wave of innovation.

As described by EMC, Atmos is a lot more than just a new breed of network storage.  The distributed technology uses an object model and inference engine to make intelligent decisions about where to store, copy and serve data.  With the world as its data center, Atmos is said to be able to flexibly move information to the point where it can be most efficiently served to the people who need it.  For example, if a cliffhanger election in Florida causes a surge of interest from local voters, election results data could be automatically routed to nearby servers.

Intelligent routing is just one of the intriguing ideas that the cloud supports, and it doesn’t have to apply just to storage.  In the future, virtual data centers will consist of computing resources spread around the globe.  Server power can be flexibly deployed to regions that need it. Backups could be administered at a high-level. For example, an organization could specify dual redundant backups for some critical data but only a single backup for less important information.  When the entire fabric is virtualized, this kind of flexibility becomes part of the landscape.

At this point, Atmos is still brochureware, and EMC isn’t sharing any customer experiences.  But I think the concept is more important than the product. Very large and distributed cloud networks can theoretically provide users with almost unlimited flexibility and economies of scale. Systems management, which is an expensive and technical discipline that very few companies do well, could be centralized and provided to all users on the network.  Customers should be able to define policies using a simple dashboard and let the inference engine do the rest.

We are only in the early stages of realizing these possibilities, but the emergence of real-world cloud computing platforms will usher in a new era of innovation.  Platform shifts invariably do that. Coincidentally, NComputing this week will announce an appliance that turns a single desktop PC into as many as 11 virtual workstations.  The company claims that the technology lowers the cost per workstation to about $70.

When applied to a cloud of servers, you can imagine technology like this scaling much higher.  Instead of having to run around supporting hundreds of physical workstations, IT organizations would only have to worry about a few powerful servers providing virtual PC experiences to users.  Move those servers into the cloud, and you can begin to apply best-of-breed security, resource and systems management to each user. The economies of scale become very compelling very fast.

The biggest leaps in technology innovation take place whenever platforms shift.  The cloud is now beginning to come into its own as a legitimate platform. Things should get pretty exciting from here.

Demo stuff for IT organizations

Note: Video presentations of the products mentioned below, as well as most other presentations from Demo, are available here. Blogger won’t accept the embedded videos and I don’t have time to mess with it.

As an event that brims with streaming video and eye-catching GUIs, Demo has never been the ideal venue for IT infrastructure companies. Startups that make servers perform better, for example, or that improve bandwidth utilization have an impossible task matching the slickness of their consumer-oriented neighbors.

Nevertheless, I saw some noteworthy innovations at Demo that should interest corporate computing departments.

Fusion-io – For sheer “Wow!” factor, Fusion-io’s ioMemory and ioDrive were hard to beat. The company claims to have squeezed the capacity and power of a storage area network onto a single PCI-Express card. The product it plans to release at the end of this year packs 640GB of non-volatile storage into a card that fits in the palm of your hand. It uses the same memory technology that’s embedded in Apple’s iPod Nano. Some people believe that breed of flash memory will eventually replace disk drives altogether.

The performance claims by this company are astounding. Fusion-io says it can improve storage performance by up to 100 times with better reliability because the product has no moving parts. At an estimated cost of around $20,000, the product will no doubt be the most costly expansion card ever produced, but Fusion-io says it will be far cheaper than the storage area networks it replaces.

CEO Rick White says a fully loaded SAN costs about $80 per gigabyte, while his product will come in at about $30 per gigabyte. That’s because there is no need for the racks, power supplies, controllers, air conditioning supply and floor space that conventional SANs need. Multiple cards can be placed in the same box and RAID-style striping can be employed for data integrity and redundancy.

The show guide said Fusion-io’s products “may prove to be among the most important products ever to launch a Demo.” If the company’s claims are true, that’s probably not an overstatement.

Solid ICE – This on-demand virtual environment from Qumranet combines the best features of virtualization and thin-client terminal services. Users can have multiple virtual machines running on their desktop, all hosted and served from the data center. IT organizations can fluidly scale of the power and resources provided to each user, and desktops can be customized and saved for access from any location. Users can even install software into their virtual machines, as if they were local computers.

Talari Networks – One of the few areas of IT infrastructure that has yet to succumb to Moore‘s Law is wide area network services. Enterprises continue to lease frame relay, multi-protocol label switching (MPLS) and other pricey dedicated network services from carriers because they’re afraid to take chances on the public Internet.

Talari claims to have come up with a way to adapt routing patterns to variations in the network and achieve frame relay-like reliability at a fraction of the cost. It layers in some secure data delivery and packet engineering to achieve reliability of more than 99.95%. Talari says is can deliver between 30 and 100 times the bandwidth per dollar and eliminate the need for frame relay or MPLS services in many cases.

The company’s web site is still two pages deep, so it may be awhile before its claims can be verified.

Disruptive Technologies to Watch Over the Next 12 Months

From Innovations, a website published by Ziff-Davis Enterprise from mid-2006 to mid-2009. Reprinted by permission.

Keep an eye on these four technologies in the short term, as they’ll have profound implications for the long term.

This week I get to talk about one of my favorite subjects: disruptive technologies. These are the innovations that get into the cracks and crevices of our daily lives and break things apart, often causing massive changes to institutions and procedures years down the road. Those changes are rarely evident at the outset.

Here are four technologies that I think are potentially disruptive:

Digitized voice – We’ve been recording voice digitally for years, of course, but the arrival of voice-over-IP services like Skype are forcing the cost of voice communications toward zero. Also, technologies embodied in services like Podscope are making it possible to index and search audio almost as effectively as we search text today. What will the world look like when our voice interactions can be stored and searched? How will this development change the way we research a topic or access content that helps a customer? What are the privacy and accountability implications?

Virtualization – So many of the headaches in IT today are caused by scarcity of resources. Software slows down, crashes, or is rendered unavailable because of hardware problems. Virtualization is a big step forward. First storage was virtualized. Then servers. Now you can also virtualize applications, running each in its own protected and secured envelope. Combine that with AJAX technology, which permits applications to be downloaded from a server and run as needed on a client, and you have the elements of a radical restructuring of computing fundamentals.

In the future, software will be less and less “machine-aware,” meaning that programs will draw on hardware resources as needed, whether locally or across a network. This could make a rich suite of applications available to users wherever they are in the world without concerns about hardware availability or capacity. The possibilities for innovation are almost endless.

The $100 laptop – A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the One Laptop per Child project, whose goal is to build a $100 networked portable PC. When you think through the implications of this achievement, the potential is stunning. Here we have the possibility of putting computers in the hands of billions of people who can’t now afford them. What will be the implications of this development be on global business? How will it change the way we organize workgroups, outsource applications and manage dispersed organizations? How will communities of people who are unfettered by a legacy of costly, complex computers organize new enterprises around this cheap, simplified technology? How will it change our expectations of computers as appliances? The implications of this project are very long term, but very exciting.

Video iPod – If this choice looks incongruous, hear me out. The next wave of the Internet will be the multimedia Web , and portable video will be the killer application. Once we can stream and download video to a lightweight, handheld device, it will change nearly every aspect of our lives. I’m not talking about watching reruns of American Idol. I’m talking about being able to communicate with our colleagues, access real-time news, view training materials and documentation, access archival information and check in with our loved ones with all the benefits of full-motion video. The ultimate vision is to carry around a window on the world, but coming up with functional players is the first step. Whether the leader is Apple or someone else, the term “iPod” connotes a user experience that we all relate to.