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Trialing a lot of cloud IaaS providers

I’ve just finished writing the forthcoming Public Cloud IaaS Magic Quadrant (except for some anticipated tweaks when particular providers come back with answers to some questions), which has twenty providers. Although Gartner normally doesn’t do hands-on evaluations, this MQ was an exception, because the easiest way to find out if a given service can do X, was generally to get an account, and attempt to do X. Asking the vendor sometimes requires a bunch of back-and-forth, especially if they don’t do X but and are weaseling their reply, forcing you to ask a set of increasingly narrow, specific questions until you get a clear answer. Also, I did not want to constantly bombard the vendors with questions, since, come MQ time, it tends to result in a firedrill whether or not you intended the question as urgent or even particularly important. (I apologize for the fact that I ended up bombarding many vendors with questions, anyway.)

I’ve used cloud services before, of course, and I am a paying customer of two cloud IaaS providers and a hosting provider, for my personal hobbies. But there’s nothing quite like a blitzkrieg through this many providers all at once. (And I’m not quite done, because some providers without online sign-up are still getting back to me on getting a trial account.)

In the course of doing this, I have had some great experiences, some mediocre experiences, and some “you really sell this and people buy it?” experiences. I have online chatted with support folks for basic questions not covered in the documentation (like “if I stop this VM, does it stop billing me, or not?” which varies from provider to provider). I have filed numerous support tickets (for genuine issues, not for evaluation purposes). I have filed multiple bug reports. I have read documentation (sometimes scanty to non-existent). I have clicked around interfaces, and I have actually used the APIs (working in Python, and in one case, without using a library like libcloud); I have probably weirded out some vendors by doing these things at 2 am, although follow-the-sun support has been intriguing. Those of you who follow me on Twitter (@cloudpundit) have gotten little glimpses of some of these things.

Ironically, I have tried to not let these trials unduly influence my MQ evaluations, except to the extent that these things are indisputably factual — features, availability of documentation, etc. But I have taken away strong impressions about ease of use, even for just the basic task of provisioning and de-provisioning a virtual machine. There is phenomenal variation in ease of use, and many providers could really use the services of a usability expert.

Any number of these providers have made weird, seemingly boneheaded decisions in their UI or service design, for which there’s no penalty to anything in MQ scoring, but did occasionally make me stare and go, “Seriously?”

I’m reluctant to publicly call out vendors for this stuff, so I’ll pick just one example from a vendor that has open online sign-up, where it’s not a private issue that hasn’t been raised on a community forum, and they’re not the sort of vendor (I hope) to make angry calls to Gartner’s Ombudsman demanding that I take this post down. (Dear OpSource folks: Think of this as tough love, and I hope Dimension Data analyst relations doesn’t have conniptions.)

So, consider: OpSource has pre-built VMs, that come with a set amount of compute and RAM, bundled with an OS. Great. Except that you can’t alter a bundle at the time of provisioning. So, say, if I want their Ubuntu image, it comes only in a 2 CPU core config. If I want only 1 core, I have to provision that image, wait for the provision to finish, go in and edit the VM config to reduce it to 1 core, and then wait for it to restart. After I go through that song and dance once, I can clone the config… but it boggles the mind why I can’t get the config I want from the start. I’m sure there’s a good technical reason, but the provider’s job is to mask such things from the user.

The experience has also caused me to wholly revise my opinion of vCloud Director as a self-service tool for the average goomba who wants a VM. I’d always seen vCD as a demo being given by experts, where it looked like despite the pile of complex functionality, it was easy enough to use. The key thing is that the service catalogs were always pre-populated in those demos. If you’re starting from the bare vCD install that a vCloud Powered provider is going to give you, you face a daunting task. Complexity is necessary for that level of fine-grained functionality, but it’s software that is in desperate need of pre-configuration from the service provider, and quite possibly an overlay interface for Joe Average Developer.

Now we’ll see if my bank freezes my credit card for possible fraud, when I’m hit with a dozen couple-of-cents-to-a-few-dollar charges come the billing cycle — I used my personal credit card for this, not my corporate card, since Gartner doesn’t actually reimburse for this kind of work. Ironically, once I spent a bunch of time on these sites, Google and the other online ad networks have started displaying ads that consist of nothing but cloud providers, including “click here for a free trial” or “$50 credit” or whatever, but of course you can’t apply those to existing accounts, which makes every little, “hey, you’ve spent another ten cents provisioning and de-provisioning this VM” charge which I’m noting in the back of my head now, into something which will probably annoy me in aggregate come the billing cycle.

Some things, you just can’t know until you try it yourself.

A little SourceForge frustration

SourceForge puzzles me. I think it’s the combination of what is obviously eager effort to improve the site, and the fumbling to get the basics right.

On the plus side, SourceForge recently made a very welcome addition — adding “hosted apps”, including WordPress and MediaWiki — as an option for all projects, for free. And the announcement of support for additional repository types, notably git, is also a nice move.

But SourceForge is plagued by sluggish response (which is especially stark when compared to the consistent zippiness of Google Code) — across its website, source code repositories, etc. — as well as occasional outages. And the continual redesign of the site, especially in its current bright-orange incarnation, hasn’t seemed like a positive to me. With every redesign, I’ve felt like SourceForge was becoming harder and harder to use. As an example, one redesign ago, the Project Admin menu got so long it was basically unusable on smaller screens (like laptops). To SourceForge’s credit, the next iteration promptly fixed it; unfortunately, the chosen fix was by burying vitally important functionality like the file release system under the “Feature Settings” page (found under Project Admin). That led me on a wild hunt through most of the UI before I finally stumbled upon it the functionality I was looking for by accident.

SourceForge offers a tremendous amount of functionality for free, which is what’s allowing it to stay dominant against the proliferating number of alternative services out there. But not only does SourceForge need to innovate, it needs to make sure that it gets the basics right. It has to add functionality while still being fast and simple to use, and over the years, SourceForge seems to have grown tendrils of new features while the main octopod body has grown sessile and mottled with confusion.

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The value, or not, of hands-on testing

At Gartner, we generally do not do hands-on testing of products, with the exception of some folks who cover consumer devices and the like. And even then, it’s an informal thing. Unlike the trade rags, for instance, we don’t have test labs or other facilities for doing formal testing.

There are a lot of reasons for that, but from my perspective, the analyst role has been primarily to advise IT management. Engineers can and will want to do testing themselves (and better than we can). Also, for the mid-size to enterprise market that we target, any hands-on testing that we might do is relatively meaningless vis a vis the complexity of the typical enterprise implementation.

Yet, the self-service nature of cloud computing makes it trivially cheap to do testing of these services, and without needing to involve the vendor. (I find that if I’m paying for a service, I feel free to bother the customer support guys, and find out what that’s really like, without being a nuisance to analyst relations or getting a false impression.) So for me, testing things myself has a kind of magnetic draw; call it the siren song of my inner geek. The question I’m asking myself, given the time consumed, is, “To what end?”

I think the reason I’m trying to do at least a little bit of hands-on with each major cloud is that I feel like I’m grounding hype in reality. I know that in superficially dinking around with these clouds, I’m only lightly skimming the surface of what it’s like to deploy in the environments. But it gives me an idea of how turnkey something is, or not, as well as the level of polish in these initial efforts.

This is a market that is full of incredible hype, and going through the mental exercise of “how would I use this in production” helps me to advise my clients on what is and isn’t ready for prime-time. An acquaintance once memorably wrote, when he was disputing some research, that analysts sit at the apex of the hype food-chain, consuming pure hype and excreting little pellets of hype as dense as neutronium. I remember being both amused and deeply offended when I first read that. Of course, I think he was very wrong — whatever we’re fed in marketing, tends to be more than overcome by the overwhelming volume of IT buyer inquiry we do, which is full of the ugly reality of actual implementation. But the comment has stuck in my memory as a dark reminder that an analyst needs to be vigilant about not feeding at the hype-trough. Keeping in touch by being at least a little hands-on helps to innoculate against that.

However, I realized, after talking to a cloud vendor client the other day, that I probably should not waste their phone inquiry time talking about hands-on impressions. That’s better left to this blog, or email, or their customers and the geek blogosphere. My direct impressions are only meaningfully relevant to the extent that what I experience hands-on contradicts marketing messages, or indicates a misalignment between strategy and implementation, or otherwise touches something higher-level. My job, as an analyst, is to not get lost in the weeds.

Nevertheless, there’s simply nothing like gaining a direct feel for something, and I am, unfortunately, way behind in my testing; I’ve got more demos accumulating than I’ve had time to try out, and the longer it takes to set something up, the more it lags in my mental queue.

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Touring Amazon’s management console

The newly-released beta of Amazon’s management console is reasonably friendly, but it is not going to let your grandma run her own data center.

I took a bit of a tour today. I’m running Firefox 3 on a Windows laptop, but everything else I’m doing out of a Unix shell — I have Linux and MacOS X servers at home. I already had AWS stuff set up prior to trying this out; I’ve previously used RightScale to get a Web interface to AWS.

The EC2 dashboard starts with a big friendly “Launch instances” button. Click it, and it takes you to a three-tab window for picking an AMI (your server image). There’s a tab for Amazon’s images, one for your own, and one for the community’s (which includes a search function). After playing around with the search a bit (and wishing that every community image came with an actual blurb of what it is), and not finding a Django image that I wanted to use, I decided to install Amazon’s Ruby on Rails stack.

On further experience, the “Select” buttons on this set of tabs seem to have weird issues; sometimes you’ll go to them and they’ll be grayed out and unclickable, sometimes you’ll click them and they’ll go gray but you won’t get the little “Loading, please wait” box that appears before going onto the next tab — and it will leave you stuck, leaving you to cancel the window and try again.

Once you select an image, you’re prompted to select how many instances you want to launch, your instance type, key pair (necessary to SSH into your server), and a security group (firewall config). More twiddly bits, like the availability zone, are hidden in advanced options. Pick your options, click “Launch”, and you’re good to go.

From the launch window, your options for the firewall default to having a handful of relevant ports (like SSH, webserver, MySQL) open to the world. You can’t get more granular with the rules than this there; you’ve got to use the Security Group config panel to add a custom rule. I wish that the defaults would be slightly stricter, like limiting the MySQL port to Amazon’s back-end.

Next, I went to create an EBS volume for user data. This, too, is simple, although initially I did something stupid, failing to notice that my instance had launched in us-east-1b. (Your EBS volume must reside in the same availability zone as your instance, in order for the instance to mount it.)

That’s when I found the next interface quirk — the second time I went to create an EBS volume, the interface continued to insist for fifteen minutes that it was still creating the volume. Normally there’s a very nice Ajax bit that automatically updates the interface when it’s done, but this time, even clicking around the whole management console and trying to come back wouldn’t get it to update the status and thus allow me to attach it to my instance. I had to close out the Firefox tab, and relaunch the console.

Then, I remember that the default key pair that I’d created had been done via RightScale, and I couldn’t remember where I’d stashed the PEM credentials. So that led me to a round of creating a new key pair via the management console (very easy), and having to terminate and launch a new instance using the new key pair (subject to the previously-mentioned interface quirks).

The same interface-somehow-gets-into-indeterminate-state also seems to be a problem for other things, like the console “Output” button for interfaces — you get a blank screen rather than the console dump.

That all dealt with, I log into my server via SSH, don’t see the EBS volume mounted, and remember that I need to actually make a filesystem and explicitly mount it. All creating an EBS volume does is allocate you an abstraction on Amazon’s SAN, essentially. This leads me to trying to find documentation for EBS, which leads to the reminder that access to docs on AWS is terrible. The search function on the site doesn’t index articles, and there are far too many articles to just click through the list looking for what you want. A Google search is really the only reasonable way to find things.

All that aside, once I do that, I have an entirely functional server. I terminate the instance, check out my account, see that this little experiment has cost me 33 cents, and feel reasonably satisfied with the world.

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An initial Mosso foray

I had an hour to kill today after a client didn’t show for a call… everyone’s taken off for T-day, I guess.

Since Rackspace has a 30-day money-back guarantee on Mosso at the moment, along with a nice Thanksgiving discount making the first month just $20, I decided to sign up for an actual account, on my personal dime. It allows me to offer guilt-free commentary based on real experience, and the freedom to bug customer support for things with the recognition that I am actually giving the company my money, and am therefore entitled to ask whatever questions I want, without giving Analyst Relations a headache. So here’s a little ramble of liveblogging my Mosso experience.

The first hurdle I ran into is that there’s no easy way to take your Cloud Files account and sign up for Cloud Sites (i.e., the main Mosso service). After a bit of a chat with their live online sales, and a few minutes of waiting while the guy checked around (during which I started writing this blog entry). After a while, I was informed I could put in a support ticket and they’d take care of it on the back end. I decided to save them some trouble and just get another account (thus allowing me to do some future playing about with copying things between Cloud Files accounts, in my desire to create parallel cloud utilities to sftp and scp), but it was a bit of an oddity — Sites is a logical upsell from Files, so I presume that functionality is probably coming eventually.

Next, I went to look for a way to change my initial sign-up password. Nothing obvious in the interface, nothing on the knowledge base… I shrugged and provisioned myself a site. On the site’s config, I found the way to change the password — and also discovered, to my horror, that the password shows up in cleartext. That certainly prompted me to change my password immediately.

I did not want to transfer my domain, but the site info page shows what Mosso wants the DNS records to be; I adjusted the DNS records on my end for what I needed, no problem. I also provisioned a second site with a non-www hostname (note that Mosso automatically turns into, which worked fine and intelligently (a recent change, I guess, because when I tried a demo account last week, it insisted on spewing full DNS info, rather than just an A record, for that).

I looked at what was available for PHP, and realized that if I wanted a framework like Zend, I’d have to install it myself, and without SSH access, that looked like it was going to be a festival of non-fun, if not flat-out impossible.

So, I turned on CGI support, which seemed to take two rounds of saving my settings, on both sites I tried it on. But CGI support does not seem to actually work for me — it’s returning 404 errors on my uploaded test scripts. Perhaps this is part of the “you may need to wait two hours” warning message given on the change-config page, but it sure would be nice if it said “pending” if that were the case, or otherwise gave some hint as to what requires a wait and what doesn’t.

I’m going to wait and see, but it’s become clear that I can’t actually do what I want with Mosso, because of the following: If you’re not running a directly supported environment (PHP, Ruby on Rails, ASP.NET), you are stuck with shoving your code, in the form of scripts, into the cgi-bin directory and that’s that. The perl and python support is just generic CGI script support. So there’s no support for mod_python, and therefore you can’t run Django.

The Mosso “Is it a fit?” page implies too much, I think. The page lists “application frameworks”, and should probably more properly say “CGI scripts (Perl, Python)” rather than the implication that the perl and python support is in the form of actual application frameworks, which you’d normally expect to be something like Catalyst for perl, or Django for python.

It’s making me think about the very, very fuzzy definition for what it means to be an application platform as a service (APaaS) vendor.

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Mosso’s Cloud Files API

I had some time to kill on a train today, and I amused myself by trying out the API for Cloud Files.

I decided I’d build something mildly useful: a little shell-like wrapper and accompanying tools for dealing with Cloud Files from the command line. So I cranked out a quick “ls”-like utility and a little interactive shell chrome around it, with the idea that my little “cfls” script would be handy for listing Cloud Files embedded in another shell script (like a quick script typed in on the command line), and that I’d be able to do more interesting manipulations from within the interactive “shell”. I decided to do it in Python, since of the languages that the API was available in, that’s the one I’m most comfortable with; I’m not a great Python programmer but I can manage. (It’s been more than a decade since I’ve written code for pay, and it probably shows.)

I was reasonably pleased by the fruits of my efforts; the API was pleasantly effortless to work with for these kind of minor tasks, and I have a version 0.1. I got the shell core and the cfls utility working, and for the heck of it, I made direct API calls out of the Python interactive mode to upload my source code to Cloud Files. For nearly no time investment, this seems pretty satisfying.

The only annoying quirk that I discovered was that the containers in the results set of get_all_containers() do not get their instance variables fully populated — all that’s populated is the name. (Calling it results in constructing a ContainerResults object with list_containers(), and the iterator only populates each Container generated with its name.) So it seems like you have to call list_containers() to get all the container names, and then get_container() on each container name, if you actually need the instance variables. I also had some odd unexpected exceptions thrown when testing things out in the Python shell — related to time-outs on the connection object, I assume. Still, these are not problems that cause more than a moment’s sigh.

The Cloud Files Python library is far and away better than the Amazon S3 Python library, which seems much more like demonstration code than a real working library (which is probably why people doing things with AWS and Python tend to use Boto instead). The Cloud Files module for Python is decently if sparsely documented, but its usage is entirely self-evident. It’s simply and intelligently structured, in a logical object hierarchy.

The important point: It’s trivial for any idiot to build apps using Cloud Files.

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