Category Archives: Applications

First impressions of IBM BlueMix

IBM has launched the beta of BlueMix, its Cloud Foundry-based PaaS. Understanding what BlueMix, and IBM, do and don’t bring to the table means a bit of a digression into how Cloud Foundry works as a PaaS. Since my blog is usually pretty infrastructure-oriented, I’m guessing that a significant percentage of readers won’t know very much about Cloud Foundry (which I’ll abbreviate as CF).

In CF, users write application code, which they deploy onto CF runtime environments (defined by “buildpacks”) — i.e., programming languages and associated frameworks. When CF is deployed as a PaaS, it will normally have some built-in buildpacks, but users can also add additional ones through a mechanism called buildpacks (which originated at Heroku, a PaaS provider that is not CF-based). CF runs applications in its own “Warden” containers (which are OS-independent), staging the runtime and app code into what it calls “droplets”. These application instances are of a size controlled by the user (developer), and the user chooses how many of them there are. Cloud Foundry does not have native auto-scaling currently.

CF can also expose a catalog of services; these services might or might not be built on top of Cloud Foundry. These services are called “Managed Services”, and they support CF’s Service Broker API, allowing CF to provision those services and bind them to applications. Users can also bind their own service instances, supplying credentials for services that exist outside of CF and that aren’t directly integrated via the Service Broker API. Users of CF can also bind external services that don’t support CF explicitly.

IBM has built its own UI for BlueMix. IBM has said at Pulse that it’s got a new focus on design, and BlueMix shows it — the interface is modern and attractive, and its entire look-and-feel and usability are in stark contrast to, say, its previous SmartCloud Application Services offering. Interacting with the UI is pleasant enough. Most users will probably use the CF command-line tool (CLI), though. Apps are normally deployed using the CLI, unless the customer is using JazzHub (a developer service created out of IBM UrbanCode).

For the BlueMix beta, IBM has created two buildpacks of its own, for Liberty (Java) and Node.js, which it says it has hardened and instrumented. They also supply two community buildpacks, for Ruby on Rails and Ruby Sinatra. As with normal CF, users can supply their own buildpacks, and the open-source CF buildpacks appear to work fine, IBM calls these “runtimes” in the BlueMix portal.

IBM also has a bunch of CF services — “Managed Services” in CF parlance. Some of these are IBM-created, like the DataCache (which is WebSphere eXtreme Scale) and Elastic MQ (WebSphere MQ). Others are labeled “community” and are likely open-source CF service implementations of popular packages like MySQL and MongoDB. As is true with all CF services, the implementation of a service is not necessarily on Cloud Foundry — for instance, one of the services is Cloudant, which is entirely external.

Finally, IBM provides what it calls “boilerplates”, which you can click to create an application with a runtime plus a number of additional services that are bound to the app. The most notable is the “mobile backend starter”, which combines Node.js with a number of mobile-oriented services, like a mobile data store and push notifications.

All in all, the BlueMix beta is a showcase for IBM middleware and other IBM software of interest to developers. IBM has essentially had to SaaS-ify (or PaaS-ify, if you prefer that term) its enterprise software assets to achieve this. Obviously, this is only a sliver of its portfolio, but bringing more software assets into BlueMix is clearly key to its strategy — BlueMix is as much a service catalog as a PaaS in this case.

Broadly, though, it’s very clear that IBM is targeting the enterprise developer, especially the enterprise developer who is currently developing in Java on WebSphere technologies. It’s bringing those developers to the cloud — not targeting cloud-native developers, who are more likely to be drawn to something like AppFog if they’re looking for a CF service. Given that IBM says that it will provide strong support for integrating with existing on-premise applications, this is a strategy that makes sense.

Standard CF constraints apply — limited RAM per application instance (and tight resource limitations in general in BlueMix beta), no writes to the local filesystem, and so forth. Other features that would be value-added, like monitoring and automatic caching of static content, are missing at present.

The short-form way to think of BlueMix beta is “Cloud Foundry with some IBM middleware as a service”. It’s hosted in SoftLayer data centers. Presumably at some point IBM will introduce SLAs for at least portions of the service. It’s certainly worth checking out if you’re a WebSphere shop, and if you’re checking out Cloud Foundry in general, this seems to be a perfectly decent way to do it. There’s solid promise here, and my expectation is that at this stage of the game, PaaS might well be a much stronger play for IBM than IaaS, at least in terms of the ability to articulate the overall value of the IBM ecosystem and make an argument for making a strategic bet on IBM in the cloud.

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Google Apps and enterprises

My colleague Tom Austin has posted a call for Google to be more transparent about enterprise usage of Google Apps. This was triggered by a TechCrunch article on Google’s reduction of the number of free users for a given Google Apps account.

I’ve been wondering how many businesses use Google Apps almost exclusively for messaging, and how many of them make substantial use of collaboration. My expectation is that a substantial number of the folks with custom domains on Google Apps solely or almost-solely do email or email forwarding. For instance, for my WordPress.com-hosted blog, I have no option for email for that domain other than via Google Apps, because WordPress.com has explicit MX record support for them and nobody else — so I use that to forward email for that domain to my regular email account. Given how heavily bloggers have driven domain registrations and “vanity” domains, I’d expect Google Apps to be wrapped up pretty heavily in that phenomenon. This is not to discount the small business, of course, whose usage of this kind of service also becomes more significant over time.

Those statistics aside, though, and going back to Tom’s thoughts on transparency, I think he’s right, if Google intends to court the enterprise market in the way that the enterprise is accustomed to being courted. I am uncertain if Google intends that, though, especially when fighting more featureful, specialized vendors in order to get an enterprise clientele is likely a waste of resources at the moment. The type of enterprise who is going to adopt this kind of solution is probably not the kind of enterprise who wants to see a bunch of case studies and feel reassured by them; they’re independent early adopters with high tolerance for risk. (This goes back to a point I made in a previous post: Enterprise IT culture tends to be about risk mitigation.)

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Google Native Client

Google announced something very interesting yesterday: their Native Client project.

The short form of what this does: You can develop part or all of your application client in a language that compiles down to native code (for instance, C or C++, compiled to x86 assembly), then let the user run it in their browser, in a semi-sandboxed environment that theoretically prevents malicious code from being executed.

Why would you want to do this? Because developing complex applications in JavaScript is a pain, and all of the other options (Java in a browser, Adobe Flex, Microsoft Silverlight) provide only a subset of functionality, and are slower than native applications. That’s one of the reasons that most applications are still done for the desktop.

It’s an ambitious project, not to mention one that is probably making every black-hat hacker on the planet drool right now. The security challenges inherent in this are enormous.

Adobe has previously had a similar thought, in the form of Alchemy, a labs project for a C/C++ compiler that generates code for AVM2 (the virtual machine inside the Flash player). But Google takes the idea all the way down to true native code.

The broader trend has been towards managed code environments and just-in-time compilers (JITs). But the idea of native code with managed-code-like protections is certainly extremely interesting, and the techniques developed will likely be interesting in the broader context of malware prevention in non-browser applications, too.

And while we’re talking about lower-level application infrastructure pies that Google has its fingers in, it’s worth noting that Google has also exhibited significant interest in LLVM (which stands for Low-Level Virtual Machine). LLVM is an open-source project now sponsored by Apple, who hired its developer and is now using it within MacOS X. In layman’s terms, LLVM makes it easier for developers to write new programming languages, and makes it possible to develop composite applications using multiple programming languages. A compiler or interpreter developer can generate LLVM instructions rather than compiling to native code, then let LLVM take care of dealing with the back-end, the final stage of getting it to run natively. But LLVM also makes it easier to do analysis of code, something that is going to be critical if Google’s efforts with Native Client are to succeed. I am somewhat curious if Google’s interests intersect here, or if they’re entirely unrelated (not all that uncommon in Google’s chaotic universe).

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