Last night I attended CloudCamp in Minneapolis. While there was much healthy discussion about the “cloud”, one thing became crystal clear for me. The cloud means different things to different people. George Reese summed it up well, there are three distinct types of clouds: Infrastructure, Platform and Software. I took away from the discussions that this distinction wasn’t clear for many people (including myself).
Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS):
Amazon and Rackspace are the two largest players in this space, but there are other solid offerings (including ReliaCloud) that compete with them. This is very similar in concept to leasing a dedicated server from an ISP, but with flexible pricing. Keith Schacht pointed out on my post about cloud pricing models, that some providers are offering non-virtualized infrastructure on a per-hour basis. Is there any benefit to choosing a virtualized machine vs. a real machine? I think that goes beyond the scope of this discussion. Something companies need to be aware of here is that running infrastructure in the cloud doesn’t reduce the need for good system administrators and that in terms of architecture very little has changed. Developers in this tier still need to be concerned with system capacity etc. The upside is many of these problems are well understood and the solutions for dealing with them are common place.
Platform as a Service (PaaS):
Salesforce and Google App Engine run platforms which you can build services on. These providers abstract everything away so that product can become the focus. Designing products for platforms doesn’t require an in-depth understanding of the sub-systems. Developers don’t need to know if MySQL, Oracle, MS SQL Server or some other storage engine are handling the data storage layer, they can just trust that the data is being stored and retrieve it when they need it. Of course this model has limitations and anyone building a product would be well served to learn about the best way to leverage the platform efficiently. The drawbacks are obvious as well. Google is an extremely reliable provider, however, they do have downtime. It’s is also extremely difficult to migrate platforms. None of the vendors currently provide import/export style functionality for data.
Software as a Service (Saas):
SaaS isn’t consumer offerings, such as those from 37 signals. Those are products or applications. What I’m referring to is a lower level software like MySQL, SQL Server, Amazon’s SQS and so on. Leveraging these services provides a unique opportunity to use the best solutions for each task, instead of a complete vendor lock-in. Developers interact with the tools and sub-systems they’re already familiar with. What the SaaS vendor does is abstract the management and scaleability tasks. Unfortunately this has a dark side. Reliance on multiple providers requires building systems that degrade gracefully when any single sub-system is no longer available. Zynga, developers of the massively popular Facebook game Farmville, build their scaleable systems in the cloud using the notion of degradeable services. Architecting the solution such that it’s dependence on external systems can be dialed back on demand. Building this into products up-front requires a different way of thinking about application design. Someone raised the point last night during the breakout about architecting for the cloud, that these are the same problems that were being solved in the 70′s. Designing networks of loosely coupled systems is not a new problem. However, it is a problem that many developers I’ve met haven’t spent much time thinking about… yet.