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Dispelling Common Cloud Myths

Posted on | December 30, 2010 | No Comments

Is there someone in your office that complains constantly yet offers no useful suggestions on how to fix the problem at hand? Do you wonder if some people just thrive on complaining and tickling the skeptic bone in others? Are you sick of the abundance of conflicting and often confusing information? When it comes to the cloud hosting industry, so am I. In this article, I’m going to present some very common arguments designed to lead you away from a modern hosting platform and tell you why those arguments are bogus.

In any hosting related banter, one must conceive that there are innovative companies and companies who just lease the same software that everyone else is using and put up a fancy site. That is hardly news. The term “buyer beware” applies to any industry.

Argument #1: “There is no definition for ‘Cloud Computing’, it is all marketing hype!This is not true. A great deal of time and money has been put into the design of hosting systems that let you upload your site or application with confidence that whatever resources are needed to meet the subsequent demand will be there. The same people who fell in love with single system image clusters years ago are quite often the people who realized that virtualization brings a whole new breed of pepper into the chili.

Paravirtualization made amazing things possible, if not trivial to implement. Yes, it is quite possible for a paravirtualized GNU/Linux (and sometimes Windows) virtual machine to know that it’s going to be in trouble and request additional resources prior to bad things happening. This might entail simply adding memory .. or perhaps the creation of additional servers and a load balancer.

Cloud computing is just like any other kind of computing, you’re talking about several things:

  • Processing
  • Storage
  • Reliability

I disagree with the term ‘cloud storage’, what you are effectively describing already has a name – “network attached storage”. Sure, you could write a program to automatically increase the allocated space provided to any single customer once 90% of the available space was used, but I don’t see the need to confuse people with the term ‘cloud’ there. Why not just call it “network attached storage that optionally grows when you are about to run out of room” ? I’ll go into more depth when it comes to storage later.

Effectively, cloud hosting is something that suits you from cradle to grave. It’s cheap when you first start, then grows as you need additional resources, without the aggravation of migrating from one hosting platform to another. Moreover, you don’t have to learn about things like load balancers, storage replication and data / memory deduplication. A good cloud host will abstract most of that for their non-technical clients, while providing technical gurus a plethora of well documented knobs to turn. Great cloud hosts offer on-line training for those who want to understand all of the moving pieces, but make sure that their user interface is simple enough for most people to use.

I don’t think the term is quite defined, but the concept of cloud computing is most decidedly defined. Every industry has carpetbaggers who cash in on opportunities. Buyer beware. As fly by night hosts go out of business for failing to deliver their ‘cloud’, the hosting market will naturally ensure that the survivors define it.

Perhaps I could have said that you’ll run into hype in any market, but I delight in being long winded. Order an exercise machine from an informercial lately? Oh, perhaps that experience compels you to tell people that exercising is bad?

Argument #2: “My data is not safe on the cloud

I hate to break it to you, but your data is not safe anywhere unless you diligently make backups and encrypt your data. This argument brings to mind the countless times that very popular hosts were burgled, and many of their customers were saying “OH MY GODZ. THIEVES CAN HAZ CREDIT CARD NUMBERZ!”. Any time you put your data in someone else’s hands, you make sure that it is encrypted and frequent backups are made. That is very simple, let’s repeat it again .. this time with italics : Any time you put your data in someone else’s hands, you make sure that it is encrypted and frequent backups are made.

This is hardly specific to the cloud hosting industry. How many of you had a shared host lose your data? How many of you had your own co-located server and experienced theft or data loss? Why do we ignore best practices that were hard learned through years of painful mistakes?

The cost of backing up your data is the cost of doing business. The cost of encrypting your data is the cost of doing business ethically. I simply won’t entertain any argument to the contrary.  A good host will provide you with the ability to run your own kernel, whatever file system you please and give you the source code to every single thing running on your servers. If you have that, you have no surprises.

Additionally, you have to be smarter than the stuff that you are working with. If you are storing medical records, you need to know HIPPA/HITECH through and through. If you are storing credit card numbers, you are either an idiot that is beyond help or understand the requirements of PCI’s DSS. Surely, you verified that your host can allow you to meet these requirements? Buyer beware …

Incidentally, medical records often contained photocopies (front and back) of the credit card used to satisfy the co-payment for proof that the card was actually in the possession of the provider. Did you think of that? I’m pretty sure that the person compiling the PDF that you now store did not.

You can’t fault your landlord if you forget to lock your door and fall victim to robbery, unless of course the landlord was the thief. This brings me back to encryption …

Argument #3: “I never know what I’ll be charged!

Corporations are tricky things. In the US, regulations mandate that corporations look out for their share holders first, above any other interest. Here, I’ll concede that there are some companies who delight in raping the clueless. Again, how is this different from any other industry? Did your fat burner 3000 actually get rid of those love handles? Did you read the fine print? A good host will present you with a very intuitive way to control what you spend, allowing for you to increase that limit no matter where you are.

A popular trick amongst rival services is to max out  (or even DDOS) a competitor’s resources. If you host can’t help you with that, don’t use them. Additionally, make sure there is some means to approve charges that might exceed a certain amount, and make sure that you can do it from anywhere. If the algorithms that your host uses to balloon your servers can’t discriminate against a slashdotting or a DoS attack, you are with the wrong host.

Services like Twitter, Digg, Facebook and others  have API’s that let a host quickly realize “this sudden surge in traffic is likely bogus”.  It also lets you quickly realize that there might be a problem and it’s time to call your account manager, getting her out of bed if needed. You do have an account manager and direct access to them, right? She can wake up developers if need be to fix a problem.

Hosts can anticipate the needs of the market at large, but it is impossible to anticipate the needs of every individual client in a program. Make sure that you have granular control over how and why you are billed, and a reliable line of communication. Here we go again, buyer beware!

Argument #4: “Vendor Lock In

Do not host your stuff with any company that makes it inconvenient to get your data. We do have standards, like OVF, but they are slow to be adopted. This is probably because a lot of engineers hate XML and find the format to be extremely over-complicated. I’m one of them.

A good host will send you on your way, with all of your data and instructions on how to decompress it upon cancellation. Of course, that should be optional, perhaps you have the latest and greatest copy of everything that you hosted with them. Ask your host, before signing up, “what happens if I leave? In what format can I collect my data?” If you aren’t guided to a published specification, don’t sign up.

Your host is your partner in whatever venture you are exploring. This is the last time I’ll say this, “buyer beware!” Additionally, ask for a document that details what happens if some other company buys your host, that has been known to happen frequently.

In conclusion, if you educate yourself a bit and do some research, you will most likely enjoy great service from cloud (some call it elastic platform) hosts.

Disclaimer: I am the CTO of Enzu, Inc. The views and opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of my employer, Enzu, Inc.

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