Cloud Management: Ladder into the Cloud

So, you decided to move your company’s IT into the cloud. Congratulations. You’ve made a choice that can give you more economical service, safer backup and far better remote access than keeping everything on your local server.

But you may still be feeling a little nervous about cloud management. How do you keep sensitive information safe in the cloud? Will your backup and compliance systems work the way they should? If you use both public and private clouds, how will you get your systems to communicate properly without making a lot of extra work for your staff? How do you avoid outages?

Fortunately, there’s a whole branch of cloud computing devoted to handling these questions. Cloud management companies, including RightScale, Ylastic and Amazon’s AWS Management Console, promise to give you control over everything you keep on a remote server through a single, simple interface.

For the most part, these companies, along with other cloud management competitors like enStratus and Kaavo, allow users to bring together systems from a variety of public and private cloud providers. Each firm has its own set of providers that it can be integrated with. If you use a popular cloud provider like Amazon’s EC2 or Rackspace on the public side, or Eucalyptus’s private platform, you’re probably all set no matter which company you go with. If you’re using something slightly less common, or if you want more flexibility to switch to a different sort of cloud, you’ll want to make sure your cloud management vendor can deliver that.

As with most technology solutions, you’ll also want to take a good inventory of your needs before you go shopping for a cloud management solution. Is ease of use at the top of your mind? Have complicated industry compliance issues to consider? Anticipate major expansion in your use of the cloud over the next couple of years? These are questions you’ll want to write down and perhaps discuss with your IT management company as you take your first steps into the cloud.

What’s the Deal with Cloudstack?

In an attempt to capitalize on the success of Amazon cloud hosting services, several new contenders have sprung up.  Most notably are Openstack and its spin off Cloudstack. Openstack has created a lot of buzz in recent months.  Companies supporting this new cloud resource hosting service include HP, Rackspace, and NASA.  Openstack is an open source code for companies to build their own internal cloud.

According to an interview of Sameer Dholakia, Cloudstack may achieve success because of how similar it is to the already established Amazon cloud services.  Cloudstack is now a ward of the Apache Software Foundation.  This is important because although Openstack has some big names behind it, Apache is a well-respected open source name.

The main difference between the two is how they are constructed.  Cloudstack has a major weakness of being just one massive .jar file, while Openstack has a modular approach.  This means that Cloudstack is harder to modify.  If you’re a small business looking to create their own cloud you’ll want your IT department working with sets of small files.  It’s easier to troubleshoot.  If one thing goes wrong in a giant file, they’ll have to go hunting amongst all the code.  As always, consult with an IT expert before implementing a cloud.

Rackspace and the open cloud

OpenStack t-shirt

If Amazon Web Services represents the cloud computing establishment, Rackspace Hosting wants to be the cool alternative. A comparison based on data from 2010 shows AWS with by far the largest chunk of the infrastructure-as-a-service space, at $500 to $700 million. Rackspace came in a distant second with $100 million.

But Rackspace argues there’s good reason to choose it over its larger rival. The company’s CEO, Lew Moorman is fighting AWS by warning businesspeople of the dangers of being locked in to that company’s cloud. Once a company’s operations are tied up with a particular cloud infrastructure, he argues, it’s hard to disentangle them if you want to choose a different vendor.

Rackspace’s proposed solution lies in the world of open-source. The company joined with NASA two years ago to launch OpenStack, and Moorman says more than 180 companies are now participating in the development of the new structure. Rackspace plans to shift its public cloud to the OpenStack codebase this summer, and other companies can use the same code as they please, creating what many hope could be a more competitive cloud landscape.

Aside from the guts of its systems, Rackspace promotes its customer service as a major selling point. Its trademarked “Fanatical Support” includes a promise that you can speak to a live person round the clock and that staff actually know what they’re talking about instead of just reading from a script.

So far, Rackspace has done quite well for itself. Its net revenues rose from $781 million in 2010 to just over $1 billion in 2011, and its stock price skyrocketed from $10 a share at its 2008 IPO to nearly $60 this spring. (It’s since fallen but remains above $40.)

Photo credit: H. Michael Karshis/Flickr

When the Cloud Falls

The concept of the Cloud revolves around the ability to access information from anywhere at any time.  Millions of users uploading and downloading their data from a centralized set of severs.  No longer do IT resources have to spread out, but centralized.  Just as the many feudal lords were replaced by absolute monarchs, so have many servers been replaced by the few.  Sounds greats, costs are reduced and efficiency is increased—until something fails.  That’s what happened to Amazon’s EC2.  Businesses like Netflix and Pinterest went down with them.  The outage only lasted about 24 hours.  However, the outrage seemed to last a little longer.

It brings up and interesting question: Are we overly dependent on cloud services.  A lot of companies like using cloud hosting services.  They allow businesses to focus on providing goods and services rather than backing up their data or looking for more storage space for their files.  But is that the best practice?  When they first came out, cloud servers were more of a back-up than a primary means of data storage.  Now it’s the reverse.  But how can you have a hybrid system?  Perhaps having just enough data stored on site to function in case of a cloud server crash would be enough.  However, that doesn’t cover businesses like Netflix in which every file is needed.  If a user goes looking for a particular movie that’s listed in the database, but can’t access it, than you have a dissatisfied customer.  Should they only have blockbusters and big releases on hand?  What about everyone else?

What about your business?  Backing up files is considered a good practice.  How to, how much, and when is a more gray area.  In the end, even with this recent crash, the amount of uptime that Amazon’s EC2 has is impressive.  Reputable cloud storage companies are secure and reliable.

Back to the Cloud

The rumor mills are on fire with possibility that Windows is relaunching its cloud services as an infrastructure-as-a-service plan. Okay, there isn’t that much buzz and probably very few people care. However, it is interesting news. The rumor boils down that Windows might offer Windows and Linux machine resources to be rented by the hour.

This move makes sense. Microsoft and Google are about the only companies that can go toe-to-toe with Amazon Web Services. They have the talent and the ability to create economies of scale. That one of the reasons why Amazon has gone relatively unchallenged in the cloud hosting arena. Competitors like Rackspace and Openstack just can’t slash prices like Amazon can. Some estimates place Amazon at nearly fifty percent of the market right now in cloud services. It’s commanding, but the mighty do fall.

What does this mean for you? Well, if you’re looking for cloud hosting services then you’ll have more choices. Infrastructure as a service allows you to get more computer power when you need it. If the rumors are to be believed (a recent tweet by Microsoft seems to confirm it) than you can pay for it by the hour. We’ll just have to wait until June 7th.

What can Best Buy do?

Best Buy announced that it will be closing 50 of its stores nationwide, two of them in Massachusetts. Best Buy has weathered many storms and consumer trends. They’ve outlasted Circuit City, Comp USA, and a dozen other electronic stores. Over the years, they’ve invested more heavily in internet transaction. However, this strategy has only taken them so far. Amazon continues to battered them and may threaten to eclipse them forever.

Best Buy projects that it will save 250 million dollars in the next fiscal year. The online retailer Amazon continues its scorched earth policy that has lead to the demise of all but the most hearty of contenders. When Amazon began selling books, it sold them at a loss in order to gain more repeat customers. Then Amazon switched models to accommodate e-books in which it let customers set their own price. Combine the ability to shift market prices with low overhead and Amazon turns itself into a giant amongst big box stores.

Brick and mortar stores face stiff challenges from their online counterparts. One thing to be noted is that 82% of consumers will not return to a store or brand if they experience bad customer service. Seven-three percent of those consumers cite rude staff has their primary complaint. That’s outrageous. Face-to-face customer service is the major advantage of the physical store front. Just from personal experience, Best Buy has been very hit and miss with its customer service. They should invest more in a better customer service experience. In a 2010 Customer Experience Impact Report, Rightnow technologies reported that customers will pay up to 25% more if it ensures a good customer service experience. That should certainly help with Best Buy’s shortfall. Everyone more the mail room clerks to the IT Consultants should listen up.