FreakoutITGeek's Blog

Random IT postings from Freakz

Head in the cloud(s)

Recently I was approached by a cloud computing organisation in relation to a role they were looking to fill within their current structure.


Now I’ve been an IT support guy for many years and, until that approach, my view of the cloud was either Apple’s iCloud or the other offerings from computer companies which, to me, appeared that they had just taken their most popular application and created it on the internet and said it’s something new. They were just repackaging something because it was the latest thing to do and they wanted to reach out to all the people with tablet computers and smart phones, but it was really the same old internet, same software, just with a fancy front end.


But how wrong was I..


I have now had a look at the services offered by Amazon Web Services (AWS) and all I can say is “Oh My!!”…  Looking at what is presented on the site is enough to make an IT geek drool and believe that they had found nirvana.


Now as much as I like Apple products and I have bought into Apple in a major way (because they appear to be developing ideas and concepts that fit into my life and the way I can envision the future of technology developing), I have to admit that I have had my eyes opened to the cloud and it’s possibilities, I have found a new vision. Not that I have turned my back on Apple, I don’t think that will happen any time in the near future, but now that I have opened pandora’s box I now believe that the world of IT has another bright future, out with Apple’s ecosystem.


To give you an idea of what I’m talking about (assuming you’re not already aware of Amazon’s offerings), Amazon offer the ability to ‘hire’ servers connected to their internet connected infrastructure, with each server (Windows or Unix) hosted ‘virtually’ on a high power, high availability and resilient physical server in one of their worldwide locations. Now this is noting new, but this is just the start, you can configure the virtual server the way you want and add software to your server ‘image’ to do whatever you need. You can  add more servers for resilience in the form of load balancing (including automatically starting a new instance of your image in the event a server fails), automatically increase or decrease the number of virtual servers as and when demand requires, have your data replicated over the servers and much, much more.


So some of you can probably see the possibilities, whilst others need more details… So here goes.. 


With all this (and there is more) you can create possibilities that have normally only been available to companies that have bucket loads of money, office, server space and IT support.


Traditionally if you wanted to set up an internet startup (for example) you would have to buy a web domain, servers (minimum 2), data switches, high speed internet connections from an ISP, cooling systems to ensure that the servers kept working effectively, power management systems (minimum UPS, probably backup generators, etc), tape backup (incase required), Redundant data and disks (incase of data loss) and IT support people to keep the servers running properly…  and that’s not all.  All this is pretty costly and takes up a lot of physical space and time.


So assuming that everything goes fine and you’re getting loads of users and the idea is profitable, you soon find that you need to order, fit and support more servers, upgrade power, security and other essentials..  this all takes time and yet more money and you need to future proof so you have to guess how big a new server(s) you will need to deal with not just the current demand but the future demand.  You need to hire extra staff or do more of the work yourself (which takes you away from building the customers and improving the product you’r promoting/selling).


Now this scenario is for an internet startup, but the same is true for other IT areas for example you standard IT department has been doing fine, but the business needs more, you have tried to save costs by virtualising the servers and putting more onto the physical servers that the IT department currently have, but this takes time, money and takes you away from the standard day to day IT issues.  When the business need more,  there’s the same upscaling required (servers, staff, power, security etc) and if there’s a new office opening somewhere you have to go through costings for either data links to the new location or if required, building and developing a new hub server setup. But what if the new office is in another country? You will probably have to have new servers, have onsite IT staff, have some way to share data, system updates, etc between the sites.


The traditional way to do IT is costly and upgrading is a risk to the business. With the cloud you can have the servers set up on a high availability network, even available around the world if required.


For the Internet startup, they can create their early prototype on a tight budget, servers instantly available from day one, data secure and available to the users either in just one country or available from around the world almost instantly.  When they get bigger, the new servers can be added instantly, no wait until they are delivered, no costly upgrades, no support staff to employ and train. They just do what they need to do…  they can add test servers to develop new ideas and have ‘trusted’ beta users trial new features and if they don’t work out just get rid of the virtual server, if they do work then an upgrade can be performed on a few servers at first and then rolled out to the rest if no issues are detected. 


For the IT department, they can move from their internal servers to the cloud servers, having instant availability, instant upgrade possibilities, cutting costs by setting the virtual servers to shut down automatically, when not required, during quiet periods and bringing them up or adding new servers automatically when high availability is required (ie financial end of year, rollout of a new product, etc).  By moving to the cloud the data is replicated between servers, resilience ensures that if a server becomes unavailable it is shut down and a new one started (no more urgent IT callouts, expensive out of hours work and downtime), company systems can be made available to executives from home, their holiday villa on smart phone, laptop or tablet device without having to pay for expensive data lines or specialist software or equipment.  Opening a new office even an international one, is as easy as getting an internet (possibly even a basic broadband) link installed and setting up the office, company servers are therefore available as soon as they are required.  VPN and other secure access set up is available to ensure that your company data is safe and secure and only those that should have access do.


So what’s next, well there are already companies like Netflix, NASA and others using the more advanced services to provide things like streaming media and encoding services (an Amazon service available on AWS) and using power of parallel processing (where several servers work as one to process large amounts of data quickly and efficiently) to perform things in fractions of the time and cost that they would have traditionally have taken.  These sort of services are only limited to people’s imagination and creativity, so there is a lot to look forward to.


So regular readers of my blog will be wondering, “well where’s the spin or Apple slant to this?”, well that’s what I’m trying to figure out.  Amazon have taken advantage of their existing International server farms, which are used for their existing businesses (ie selling things on Amazon, developing web applications and probably using it to design their next smart phone OS, e-reader or tablet device) and are probably minimising their costs by offering the services to others.


So what about Apple? They have iCloud which is a storage area for iOS backups, users files and application data, e-mails, photo sharing between devices, but not much more.  iWeb disappeared and was never replaced, but then again Apple are very secretive.  They have a large developer base that could easily take their knowledge of iOS and OSX development and utilise it on a similar cloud offering from Apple. I assume those developers would value such a service from Apple?


So would Apple go down the same route? Could they compete?


I think so, Apple presently have some massive server farms / data centers, which deal with the iCloud, iTunes, iOS upgrades and other services that are needed to support their existing product ranges, not to forget about their stores, with their high speed internet connections and back office systems (I have made an assumption here – are the back office systems really iCloud systems ?).


So would Apple be able to compete with Amazon’s server offering? I think so, OSX has been around for some time, and in my opinion is the poor cousin (ie not many people outside of the IT industry know or care about it) to other offerings from Apple, but it could offer quite a punch if it was used in a large scale development. OSX Server already has parallel processing capabilities built in and publicly available, it has streaming capabilities in the form or quicktime, and there are so many other features that I have yet to discover (unfortunately the last OSX server I used was OSX 10.3 on a G4 Mac Pro, which was linked to a Windows 2003 domain controller and delegated nearly everything to it). I believe that OSX Server could be possible of much more than just the accounts management and application control that most companies probably use it for. I believe that OSX server could be press-ganged into service to offer a similar, possibly even better, service to what Amazon presently offer (even down to Windows server – running on parallels or similar product).  


Apple have recently removed their Mac Pro tower system in Europe because of concerns over the cooling fans not meeting EU regulations, but rumors are that a new design is coming soon. Apple have also previously removed the disk storage system XServe which enterprise companies used for data security and storage. So do Apple have a full cloud option up their sleeves?  As usual, only time will tell..


Apple or Amazon which one would you choose ?


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