net.work

The Way Business Is Moving

net.work published by
Issue Date: January 2009

Head in the clouds

January 2009

The application as we know it is on its last legs and the evolution of software is forcing a change in the data centre as a concept. A new breed is on the way that takes shape as required and pulls its guts together from services living in cloud environments and data sets living where they need to. Say hello to the hybrid composite application.

If the network is the business then applications are its offices. The software tools we use are vital to running our organisations. They enable us to get the job done and can provide us with powerful differentiators. Applications must be kept up and running, be managed and maintained, secured, updated and live on reliable infrastructure. But where our applications reside is changing, along with the architecture of the software itself. Cloud computing and Software as a Service are providing new ways of developing, hosting and purchasing applications. Infrastructure now means anything from physical boxes in an office to cloud services hosted on who-knows-what. Or where.
Hosting applications in the cloud is a compelling prospect. It allows you to hand the administration, updating and maintenance of applications over to a third party. You worry about using the software – not about the hardware it lives on or what happens when that platform falls over. It also allows for applications to be utilised via a subscription model, doing away with capital outlay for software and replacing it with operational expenditure.
Cloud formation
Al Nugent is executive vice president and chief technology officer of CA. Part of his role is futurist, predicting what is around the corner for the technology stack, and how best to manage it when it comes.
Al envisions a hybrid environment in the future where applications are mashed-up using local data and services pulled out of the cloud. Or clouds.
“There will be lots of clouds,” he says, speaking to me at CA World in Las Vegas, Nevada. “The CA cloud, Amazon cloud, Google cloud… you will probably see the MIT cloud too, for example. The industry will have to figure out lowest common denominators in terms of modality. Then things need to be normalised at the event level.”
The exciting thing about having a number of clouds to choose from is that one could begin to do the likes of failing over from one cloud environment to the other. Given that standards are in place.
“Ah yeah – standards,” agrees Al. “I love standards, because there are so many to choose from.”
But we are talking years ahead when it comes to cloud-juggling. In the now there are interesting questions that face the development of hybrid applications that only partially live in your data centre and have their heads in the clouds.
“With the notion of anonymous services coming out of the cloud into some instance of an application we expect to see an enterprise version of that composite piece of software,” reckons Al. “But smaller businesses and consumers are looking to compose things with chunks of things from the cloud. So how do you guarantee service levels? If you are a contract provider sure you can attach services into a composite viewing framework. But if you have got something anonymous you need wrapping or front-ending to provide an instrumentation layer and extract a performance layer from that.”
“And then how do you accommodate for pieces of applications in terms of where they live?” he asks. “The questions we face are in how to manage risk, guarantee service levels and measure performance.”
“But we are not going to see this as a dominant application architecture in the next three years,” he says. “Just like SOA took a long time to catch on, so will this. We will see it in five or six years maybe. But that depends on how the first three go.”
The relevant vendors are gearing up, however. If applications are going to live in the cloud, even just as services composed into other applications, then we need a new breed of platform for them to live on. Conventional web-hosts will not do either. They need to scale up. Rack space has begun to make the transition to capable cloud application host. And Microsoft has entered the game with an operating system designed for the cloud.
The clear-blue
Azure is a cheeky name for the Windows product designed as an operating system for cloud environments. We could extrapolate at length about Microsoft’s vision of a cloudless sky – but let us stick to business. Windows Azure is here and, unless I am mistaken, is one of a kind.
According to Microsoft the Azure ‘Services Platform’ combines the growing power of web-based cloud and modern computing devices with a suite of services designed to help developers deliver next-generation applications across multiple environments.
Microsoft’s Software-plus-Services model is founded on the premise that users benefit most when software and services exist together, taking full advantage of client devices and delivering maximum flexibility and choice.
“There is this notion out there that all of technology will be sucked up in to this thing called the ‘cloud,’ and the cloud will virtually replace all the other technology or render it irrelevant,” says Dave Ives, who heads the Developer and Platform Evangelism Group at Microsoft SA. “The reality is that the cloud only complements existing technology and provides people with flexibility and another way of doing things. Our intent with Azure is to seamlessly extend Microsoft’s platform out to the cloud so customers do not have to choose, or deal with silos of web-based information.”
“When you actually talk to customers, just about all are saying there are some things they need on premise and some things they need hosted entirely within the cloud – but they want all of those things to work together. Services are here to stay, but software is not dead.”
Ives says Azure is designed to allow developers to create cloud-based computing architectures that run off of centralised servers that are operated and maintained by Microsoft.
To curb customer’s fears of their applications falling over in the cloud, Microsoft is employing what it calls the ‘Windows Azure Fabric Controller’ that balances workloads across servers, manages resources and reroutes work instantaneously if a server goes down.
But Azure has also been designed to integrate with local bits and pieces – taking the whole cloud thing one step closer to the prediction of hybrid applications stealing the show. After all – having the mechanics of an app living on a cloud are fine, but we need the data it lifts to sit nice and safely next to the fireplace at home, in case it starts raining outside.
Precipitation
As I take a step back and look at the bigger picture surrounding hybrid infrastructure, I cannot help but feeling that our friends at Sun Microsystems and IBM have hummed this tune, before it became a hit. The first time I was introduced to the idea of composite applications of this kind was speaking to someone at Sun a good two years ago. IBM has also harboured the idea for some time.
Joe Ruthven, IBM business development manager believes that the time for composite applications has come, even though the idea has been knocking about for a while.
“Some years ago when the concept of middleware was born the software industry was at a very different place,” he says. “The idea behind middleware was that we eliminated the duplication that existed within applications. This was mostly done from a security, database, and connectivity point of view. The industry successfully adopted this and a vendor like IBM removed itself from the application space in order to concentrate on middleware. One of the advantages of this was that IBM could have a different conversation with customers, allowing them to choose their own applications, with IBM providing a common middleware layer.”
“The game has changed with the industry moving towards a new paradigm that will introduce the concepts of software as a service and a composite business application,” continues Joe. “The idea is that you only invest in the components or services that you need instead of investing in a traditional application. An SOA-based infrastructure is then used to compose or orchestrate your applications and processes as you require them – dynamically with minimal business interruption and with a much shorter turnaround time.”
“But in order for this to become a reality a mind-shift needs to occur between a traditional model of four segments to an idea of services, SOA and events, he explains. “Change is inevitable and there is a great demand to swiftly respond to market challenges and opportunities - something that is almost impossible to do when you are burdened with an inflexible infrastructure. A service oriented architecture is the catalyst for change and can help simplify the impact that market shifts, customer demands and new opportunities bring to an organisation. Successful adoption of a SOA infrastructure and solutions based on it will enable an organisation to stay ahead of the curve. Change does not have to be daunting. It is a chance to usher in opportunities like flexibility, business-alignment, and of course, competitive advantage.”
So while Microsoft, Amazon and the other major players are busy rolling out the bits and pieces we need to chuck services into the cloud with all you need to worry about for the moment is what things look like back home. Is your environment ready to benefit from the new application paradigm?
Opinion
Traditional applications are still going to have their place amidst the composite application environment - but it is clear that the latter is the way forward. Some modern web applications are already taking this form and showing us how it is done. It is possible to put it all in the cloud – databases, services, and even the front-ends we need to interact with these via a browser, but big businesses with sensitive data will probably look to the hybrid model where their own infrastructure is extended into the cloud. Cometh the hour, cometh the architecture; composite applications are the answer to a business need for agility and flexibility. It is about doing more with less and driving an intensified focus on business.


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