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Linkage du jour

Tossing a few links out there…

In the weekend’s biggest cloud news, Microsoft’s Azure was down for 22 hours. It’s now back up, with no root cause known.

Geva Perry has posted a useful Zoho Sheet calculator for figuring out whether an Amazon EC2 reserved instance will save you money over an unreserved instance.

Craig Balding has posted a down-to-earth dissection of PCI compliance in the cloud, and the practical reality that cloud infrastructure providers tend to deal with PCI compliance by encouraging you to push the actual payment stuff off to third parties.

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Anti-virus integration with cloud storage

Anti-virus vendor Authentium is now offering its AV-scanning SDK to cloud providers.

Authentium, unlike most other AV vendors, has traditionally been focused at the gateway; they offer an SDK designed to be embedded in applications and appliances. (Notably, Authentium is the scanning engine used by Google’s Postini service.) So courting cloud providers is logical for them.

Anti-virus integration makes particular sense for cloud storage providers. Users of cloud storage upload millions of files a day. Many businesses that use cloud storage do so for user-generated content. AV-scanning a file as part of an upload could be just another API call — one that could be charged for on a per-operation basis, just like GET, PUT, and other cloud storage operations. That would turn AV scanning into a cloud Web service, making it trivially easy for developers to integrate AV scanning into their applications. It’d be a genuine value-add for using cloud storage — a reason to do so beyond “it’s cheap”.

More broadly, security vendors have become interested in offering scanning as a service, although most have desktop installed bases to defend, and thus are looking at it as a supplement as opposed to a replacement for traditional desktop AV products; see the past news on McAfee’s Project Artemis or Trend Micro’s Smart Protection Network for examples.

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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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Cloud risks and organizational culture

I’ve been working on a note about Amazon EC2, and pondering how different the Web operations culture of Silicon Valley is from that of the typical enterprise IT organization.

Silicon Valley’s prevailing Ops culture is about speed. There’s a desperate sense of urgency that seems to prevail there, a relentless expectation that you can be the Next Big Thing, if only you can get there fast enough. Or, alternatively, you are the Current Big Thing, and it is all you can do to keep up with your growth, or at least not have the Out Of Resources truck run right over you.

Enterprise IT culture tends to be about risk mitigation. It is about taking your time, being thorough, and making the right decisions and ensuring that nothing bad happens as the result of them.

To techgeeks at start-ups in the Valley (and I mean absolutely no disparagement by this, as I was one, and perhaps still would be, if I hadn’t become an analyst), the promise and usefulness of cloud computing is obvious. The question is not if; it is when — when can I buy a cloud that has the particular features I need to make my life easier? But: Simplify my architecture? Solve my scaling problems and improve my availability? Give me infrastructure the instant I need it, and charge me only when I get it? I want it right now. I wanted it yesterday, I wanted it last year. Got a couple of problems? Hey, everyone makes mistakes; just don’t make them twice. If I’d done it myself, I’d have made mistakes too; anyone would have. We all know this is hard. No SLA? Just fix it as quickly as you can, and let me know what went wrong. It’s not like I’m expecting you to go to Tahiti while my infrastructure burns; I know you’ll try your best. Sure, it’s risky, but heck, my whole business is a risk! No guts, no glory!

Your typical enterprise IT guy is struck aghast by that attitude. He does not have the problem of waking up one morning and discovering that his sleepy little Facebook app has suddenly gotten the attention of teenyboppers world-wide and now he needs a few hundred or a few thousand servers right this minute, while he prays that his application actually scales in a somewhat linear fashion. He’s not dealing with technology he’s built himself that might or might not work. He isn’t pushing the limits and having to call the vendor to report an obscure bug in the operating system. He isn’t being asked to justify his spending to the board of directors. He lives in a world of known things — budgets worked out a year in advance, relatively predictable customer growth, structured application development cycles stretched out over months, technology solutions that are thoroughly supported by vendors. And so he wants to try to avoid introducing unknowns and risks into his environment.

Despite eight years at Gartner, advising clients that are mostly fairly conservative in their technology decisions, I still find myself wanting to think in early-adopter mode. In trying to write for our clients, I’m finding it hard to shift from that mode. It’s not that I’m not skeptical about the cloud vendors (and I’m trying to be hands-on with as many platforms as I can, so I can get some first-hand understanding and a reality check). It’s that I am by nature rooted in that world that doesn’t care as much about risk. I am interested in reasonable risk versus the safest course of action.

Realistically, enterprises are going to adopt cloud infrastructure in a very different way and at a very different pace than fast-moving technology start-ups. At the moment, few enterprises are compelled towards that transformation in the way that the Web 2.0 start-ups are — their existing solutions are good enough, so what’s going to make them move? All the strengths of cloud infrastructure — massive scalability, cost-efficient variable capacity, Internet-readiness — are things that most enterprises don’t care about that much.

That’s the decision framework I’m trying to work out next.

I am actively interested in cloud infrastructure adoption stories, especially from “traditional” enterprises who have made the leap, even in an experimental way. If you’ve got an experience to share, using EC2, Joyent, Mosso, EngineYard, Terremark’s Infinistructure, etc., I’d love to hear it, either in a comment on my blog or via email at lydia dot leong at gartner dot com.

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