The transcendence of Data Fabric

The Register wrote a damning piece about NetApp a few days ago. I felt it was irresponsible because this is akin to kicking a man when he’s down. It is easy to do that. The writer is clearly missing the forest for the trees. He was targeting NetApp’s Clustered Data ONTAP (cDOT) and missing the entire philosophy of NetApp’s mission and vision in Data Fabric.

I have always been a strong believer that you must treat Data like water. Just like what Jeff Goldblum famously quoted in Jurassic Park, “Life finds a way“, data as it moves through its lifecycle, will find its way into the cloud and back.

And every storage vendor today has a cloud story to tell. It is exciting to listen to everyone sharing their cloud story. Cloud makes sense when it addresses different workloads such as the sharing of folders across multiple devices, backup and archiving data to the cloud, tiering to the cloud, and the different cloud service models of IaaS, PaaS, SaaS and XaaS.

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Amazon makes it easy

I like the way Amazon is building their Cloud Computing services. Amazon Web Services (AWS) is certainly on track to become the most powerful Cloud Computing company in the world. In fact, AWS might already is.  But they are certainly not resting on their laurels when they launched 2 new services in as many weeks – Amazon DynamoDB (last week) and Amazon Storage Gateway (this week).

I am particularly interested in the Amazon Storage Gateway, because it is addressing one of the biggest fears of Cloud Computing head-on. A lot of large corporations are still adamant to keep their data on-premise where it is private and secure. Many large corporations are still very skeptical about it even though Cloud Computing is changing the IT landscape in a massive way. The barrier to entry for large corporations is not something easy, but Amazon is adapting to get more IT divisions and departments to try out Cloud Computing in a less disruptive way.

The new service, is really about data storage and data backup for large corporations. This is important because large corporations have plenty of requirements for data storage and data to be backed up. And as we know, a large portion of the data stored does not need to be transactional or to be accessed frequently. This set of data is usually less frequently used, for archiving or regulatory compliance reasons, particular in the banking and healthcare industry.

In the data backup operations, the reason data is backed up is to provide a data recovery mechanism when a disaster strikes. Large corporations back up tons of data every day, weeks or month and this data only has value when there is a situation that requires data relevance, data immediacy or data recovery. Otherwise, it is just plenty of data taking up storage space, be it on disk or on tape.

Both data storage and data backup cost a lot of money, both CAPEX and OPEX. In CAPEX, you are constantly pressured to buy more storage to store the ever growing data. This leads to greater management and administration costs, both contributing heavily into OPEX costs. And I have not included the OPEX costs of floor space, power and cooling, people (training, salary, time and so on) typically adding up to 3-5x the operations costs relative to the capital investments. Such a model of IT operations related to storage cannot continue forever, and storage in the Cloud offers an alternative.

These 2 scenarios – data storage and data backup – are exactly the type of market AWS is targeting. In order to simplify and pacify large corporations, AWS introduced the Amazon Storage Gateway, that eases the large corporations to take some of their IT storage operations to the Cloud in the form of Amazon S3.

The video below shows the Amazon Storage Gateway:

The Amazon Storage Gateway is a piece of software “appliance” that is installed on-premise in the large corporation’s data center. It seamlessly integrates into the LAN and provides a SSL (Secure Socket Layer) connection to the Amazon S3. The data being transferred to the S3 is also encrypted with AES (Advanced Encryption Standard) 256-bit. Both SSL and AES-256 can give customers a sense of security and AWS claims that the implementation meets the data storage and data recovery standards used in the banking and healthcare industries.

The data storage and backup service regularly protects the customer’s data in snapshots, and giving the customer a rapid recovery platform should the customer experienced on-premise data corruption or data disruption. At the same time, the snapshot copies in the Amazon S3 can also be uploaded into Amazon EBS (Elastic Block Store) and testing or development environments can be evaluated and testing with Amazon EC2 (Elastic Compute Cloud). The simplicity of sharing and combining different Amazon services will no doubt, give customers a peace of mind, easing their adoption of Cloud Computing with AWS.

This new service starts with a 60-day free trial and moving on to a USD$125.00 (about Malaysian Ringgit $400.00) per gateway per month subscription fee. The data storage (inclusive of the backup service), costs only 14 cents per gigabyte per month. For 1TB of data, that is approximately MYR$450 per month. Therefore, minus the initial setup costs, that comes to a total of MYR$850 per month, slightly over MYR$10,000 per year.

At this point, I like to relate an experience I had a year ago when implementing a so-called private cloud for an oil-and-gas customers in KL. They were using the HP EVS (Electronic Vaulting Service) to an undisclosed HP data center hosting site in the Klang Valley. The HP EVS, which was an OEM of Asigra, was not an easy solution to implement but what was more perplexing was the fact that the customer had a poor understanding of what would be the objectives and their 5-year plan in keeping with the data protected.

When the first 3-4TB data storage and backup were almost used up, the customer asked for a quotation for an additional 1TB of the EVS solution. The subscription for 1TB was MYR$70,000 per year. That is 7x time more than the AWS MYR$10,000 per year cost! I have to salute the HP sales rep. It must have been a damn good convincing sell!

In the long run, the customer could be better off running their storage and backup on-premise with their HP EVA4400 and adding an additional of 1TB (and hiring another IT administrator) would have cost a whole lot less.

Amazon Web Services has already operating in Singapore for the past 2 years, and I am sure they are eyeing Malaysia as their regional market. Unless and until Malaysian companies offering Cloud Services know to use economies-of-scale to capitalize the Cloud Computing market, AWS is always going to be a big threat to CSP companies in Malaysia and a boon of any companies seeking cloud computing services anywhere in the world.

I urge customers in Malaysia to start questioning their so-called Cloud Service Providers if they can do what AWS is doing. I have low confidence of what the most local “cloud computing” companies can deliver right now. I hope they stop window dressing their service offerings and start giving real cloud computing services to customers. And for customers, you must continue to research and find out more which cloud services meet your business objectives. Don’t be flashed by the fancy jargons or technical idealism thrown at you. Always, always find out more because your business cost is at stake. Don’t be like the customer who paid MYR$70,000 for 1TB per year.

AWS is always innovating and the Amazon Storage Gateway is just another easy-to-adopt step in their quest for world domination.

The definition of Cloud Computing … really

Happy New Year! I am looking forward to the year of 2012.

Lately, I have been involved in Cloud Computing forums and I have been reading articles on Cloud Computing. I even took up a 5-day course on Cloud Computing in order to prepare myself for the inevitable. Yes, Cloud Computing is here to stay, but we joke about it, don’t we? I think the fun word of Cloud Computing is “cloudy“, which is indeed very true.

As I ingest more and more information about Cloud Computing, the definition of how different people has different perspective or opinion about Cloud Computing has never been “cloudier“. It is fuzzy, hazy, and confusing. And in the forums, many were saying that virtualization is Cloud Computing. What do you think?

I found that one definition of Cloud Computing very definitive, yet simple. This definition comes from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) of the US Department of Commerce. In its publication #800145, NIST defines Cloud Computing to have the following 5 essential characteristics (duplicated in verbatim):

  • On-demand self-service. A consumer can unilaterally provision computing capabilities, such as server time and network storage, as needed automatically without requiring human interaction with each service provider.
  • Broad network access. Capabilities are available over the network and accessed through standard mechanisms that promote use by heterogeneous thin or thick client platforms (e.g., mobile phones, tablets, laptops, and workstations).
  • Resource pooling. The provider’s computing resources are pooled to serve multiple consumers using a multi-tenant model, with different physical and virtual resources dynamically assigned and reassigned according to consumer demand. There is a sense of location independence in that the customer generally has no control or knowledge over the exact location of the provided resources but may be able to specify location at a higher level of abstraction (e.g., country, state, or datacenter). Examples of resources include storage, processing, memory, and network bandwidth.
  • Rapid elasticity. Capabilities can be elastically provisioned and released, in some cases automatically, to scale rapidly outward and inward commensurate with demand. To the consumer, the capabilities available for provisioning often appear to be unlimited and can be appropriated in any quantity at any time.
  • Measured service. Cloud systems automatically control and optimize resource use by leveraging a metering capability1 at some level of abstraction appropriate to the type of service (e.g., storage, processing, bandwidth, and active user accounts). Resource usage can be monitored, controlled, and reported, providing transparency for both the provider and consumer of the utilized service.

The 5 essential characteristics are very important in determining whether Virtualization = Cloud Computing, and I know there are a lot of people out there that says that Virtualization equates Cloud Computing. Let’s see the table below:

 

Some readers might argue about the “YES” or “NO” in the above comparison, but I do not want to dwell on the matter. Yes, I believe that many of these things are doable in their own right but with different level of complexity and costs. The objective is to settle the arguments and confusions of Cloud Computing, accept some definitive terms and move on.

As you can see from the table above, Virtualization does not equate to Cloud Computing. We can say that Virtualization enables Cloud Computing to happen. It is the pre-cursor to Cloud Computing.

In Cloud Computing, there are different Service Models. NIST defines 3 different Service Models. They are:

  • Software as a Service (SaaS). The capability provided to the consumer is to use the provider’s applications running on a cloud infrastructure2. The applications are accessible from various client devices through either a thin client interface, such as a web browser (e.g., web-based email), or a program interface. The consumer does not manage or control the underlying cloud infrastructure including network, servers, operating systems, storage, or even individual application capabilities, with the possible exception of limited user-specific application configuration settings.
  • Platform as a Service (PaaS). The capability provided to the consumer is to deploy onto the cloud infrastructure consumer-created or acquired applications created using programming languages, libraries, services, and tools supported by the provider.3 The consumer does not manage or control the underlying cloud infrastructure including network, servers, operating systems, or storage, but has control over the deployed applications and possibly configuration settings for the application-hosting environment.
  • Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS). The capability provided to the consumer is to provision processing, storage, networks, and other fundamental computing resources where the consumer is able to deploy and run arbitrary software, which can include operating systems and applications. The consumer does not manage or control the underlying cloud infrastructure but has control over operating systems, storage, and deployed applications; and possibly limited control of select networking components (e.g., host firewalls).

And NIST went on to define the Deployment Models of Cloud Computing as listed below:

  • Private cloud. The cloud infrastructure is provisioned for exclusive use by a single organization comprising multiple consumers (e.g., business units). It may be owned, managed, and operated by the organization, a third party, or some combination of them, and it may exist on or off premises.
  • Community cloud. The cloud infrastructure is provisioned for exclusive use by a specific community of consumers from organizations that have shared concerns (e.g., mission, security requirements, policy, and compliance considerations). It may be owned, managed, and operated by one or more of the organizations in the community, a third party, or some combination of them, and it may exist on or off premises.
  • Public cloud. The cloud infrastructure is provisioned for open use by the general public. It may be owned, managed, and operated by a business, academic, or government organization, or some combination of them. It exists on the premises of the cloud provider.
  • Hybrid cloud. The cloud infrastructure is a composition of two or more distinct cloud infrastructures (private, community, or public) that remain unique entities, but are bound together by standardized or proprietary technology that enables data and application portability (e.g., cloud bursting for load balancing between clouds).

There! Cloud Computing by the definition of NIST. It is simple, easily understood and most importantly, it give us the context of what we are looking for in the sea of confusion. Here’s the link to NIST’s PDF.

We can argue till the cows come home but it is best to stick to a simple definition of Cloud Computing and focus on other more important aspects of the cloud.

I hope to share more of my Cloud Computing experience with you and storage will have a big part to play in it.

Cloud Computing and it’s not iCloud

Steve Jobs was great with what he has done, but when it comes to Cloud Computing, Jeff Bezos of Amazon is the one. And I believe the Amazon Web Services (AWS) is bigger than Apple’s iCloud, in this present time and the future. Why do I say that knowing that the Apple fan boys could be using me as target practice? Because I believe what Amazon is doing is the future of Cloud Computing. Jeff Bezos is a true visionary.

One thing we have to note is that we play different roles when it comes to Cloud Computing. There are Cloud Service Providers (CSP) and there are enterprise subscribers. On a personal level, there are CSPs that cater for consumer-level type of services and there are subscribers of this kind as well. The diagram below shows the needs from an enterprise perspective, for both providers and subscribers.

 

Also we recognize Amazon from a less enterprise perspective, and they are probably better known for their engagement at the consumer level. But what Amazon is brewing could already be what Cloud Computing should be and I don’t think Apple iCloud is quite there yet.

Amazon Web Services cater for the enterprise and the IT crowd, providing both Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) and Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) through its delectable offerings of the

  • Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2)
  • SimpleDB
  • Simple Storage Service (S3)
  • Elastic Block Store (EBS)
  • Elastic Beanstalk
  • CloudFormation
  • many more

And AWS has been operational and serving enterprise customers for 5-6 years now. Netflix, Zynga, Farmville are some of AWS customers.  This is something Apple iCloud do not have, a Cloud Computing ecosystems for enterprise customers. Apple iCloud do not offer PaaS or IaaS. Perhaps that’s Apple vision not to get into the enterprise, but eventually the world evolve around businesses and businesses are adopting Cloud Computing. Many readers may disagree with what I say now in this paragraph but I will share with you later that even at the consumer level, Amazon is putting right moves in place, probably more so than Apple’s vision. (more about this later).

But the recent announcement of Kindle Fire, their USD$199 Android-based gadget, was to me, the final piece to Amazon’s Phase I jigsaw – the move to conquer the Cloud Computing space. I read somewhere that USD$199 Kindle Fire actually costs about USD$201.XX to manufacture. Apple’s iPad costs USD$499. So Amazon is making a loss for each gadget they sell. So what! It’s no big deal.

Let me share with you this table that will rattle your thinking a little bit. Remember this: Cloud Computing is defined as a “utility”. Cloud Computing is about services, content. 

The table was taken from a recent Wired Magazine article. It featured the interview with Jeff Bezos. Go check out the interview. It’s very refreshing and humbling.

I hope the table is convincing you enough to say that the device or the gadget doesn’t matter. Yes, Apple and Amazon have different visions when it comes to Cloud Computing, but if you take some time to analyze the comparison, Amazon does not lock you into buying expensive (but very good) hardware, unlike Apple.

Take for instance the last point. Apple promotes downloaded media while Amazon uses streamed media. If you think about it, that what Cloud Computing should be because the services and the contents are utility. Amazon is providing services and content as a utility. Apple’s thinking is more old-school, still very much the PC-era type of mentality. You have to download the applications onto your gadget before you can use it.

Even the Amazon Silk browser concept is more revolutionary that Apple’s Safari. The Silk browser splits some of the processing in the Amazon Cloud, taking advantage of the power of the Amazon Cloud to do the processing for the user. Here’s a little video about Amazon Silk browser.

The Apple Safari is still very PC-centric, where most of the Web content has to be downloaded onto the browser to be viewed and processed. No doubt the Amazon Silk also download contents, but some of the processing such as read-ahead, applet-processing functions have been moved to Amazon Cloud. That’s changing our paradigm. That’s Cloud Computing. And iCloud does not have anything like that yet.

Someone once told me that Cloud is about economics. How incredibly true! It is about having the lowest costs to both providers and consumers. It’s about bringing a motherload of contents  that can be delivered to you on the network. Amazon has tons of digital books, music, movies, TV and computing power to sell to you. And they are doing it at a responsible pace, with low margins. With low margins, the barrier of entry is lower, which in turn accelerates the Cloud Computing adoption. And Amazon is very good at that. Heck, they are selling their Kindle Fire at a loss.

Jeff Bezos has stressed that what they are doing is long term, much longer term than most. To me, Jeff Bezos is the better visionary of Cloud Computing. I am sorry but the reality is Steve Jobs wants high margins from the gadgets they sell to you. That is Apple’s vision for you.

 Photo courtesy of Wired magazine.

Go on and be a storage extraordinaire

ex·tra·or·di·naire – Outstanding or remarkable in a particular capacity

I was plucking the Internet after dinner while I am holidaying right now in Port Dickson. And at about this time, the news from my subscriptions will arrive, perfectly timed as my food is digesting.

And in the news – “IDC Says Cloud Adoption Fuels Storage Sales”. You think?

We are generating so much data in this present moment, that IDC is already saying that we are doubling our data every 2 years. That’s massive and a big part of it is being fueled our adoption to Cloud. It doesn’t matter if it is a public, private or hybrid cloud because the way we use IT has changed forever. It’s all too clear.

Amazon has a massive repository of contents; Google has been gobbling tons of data and statistics since its inception; Apple has made IT more human; and Facebook has changed the way we communicate. FastCompany magazine called Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook the Big 4 and they will converge sooner or later into what the tornado chasers call a Perfect Storm. Every single effort that these 4 companies are doing now will inevitably meet at one point, where content, communication, computing, data, statistics all become the elements of the Perfect Storm. And the outcome of this has never been more clearer. As FastCompany quoted:

“All of our activity on these devices produces a wealth of data, which leads to the third big idea underpinning their vision. Data is like mother’s milk for Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. Data not only fuels new and better advertising systems (which Google and Facebook depend on) but better insights into what you’d like to buy next (which Amazon and Apple want to know). Data also powers new inventions: Google’s voice-recognition system, its traffic maps, and its spell-checker are all based on large-scale, anonymous customer tracking. These three ideas feed one another in a continuous (and often virtuous) loop. Post-PC devices are intimately connected to individual users. Think of this: You have a family desktop computer, but you probably don’t have a family Kindle. E-books are tied to a single Amazon account and can be read by one person at a time. The same for phones and apps. For the Fab Four, this is a beautiful thing because it means that everything done on your phone, tablet, or e-reader can be associated with you. Your likes, dislikes, and preferences feed new products and creative ways to market them to you. Collectively, the Fab Four have all registered credit-card info on a vast cross-section of Americans. They collect payments (Apple through iTunes, Google with Checkout, Amazon with Amazon Payments, Facebook with in-house credits). Both Google and Amazon recently launched Groupon-like daily-deals services, and Facebook is pursuing deals through its check-in service (after publicly retreating from its own offers product).”

Cloud is changing the way we work, we play, we live and data is now the currency of humans in the developed and developing worlds. And that is good news for us storage professionals, because all the data has to eventually end up in a storage somewhere, somehow.

That is why there is a strong demand for storage networking professionals. Not just any storage professionals but the ones that have the right attitude to keep developing themselves, enhancing their skillset, knowledge and experience. The ones that can forsee that the future will worship them and label them as deities of the Cloud era.

So why are you guys take advantage of this? Well, don’t just sit there and be ordinary. Be a storage extraordinaire now! And for those guys who want to settle of being ordinary … too bad! I said this before – You could lose your job.

Happy school holidays!

The demise of the IT engineer?

Scott Lowe is one of my favourite virtualization experts. I have 2 of his VMware books and his latest book on VMware 5.0 will be out next month. He is currently the CTO of EMC’s vSpecialist team and in one of his blog entries, he spoke about “The End of the Infrastructure Engineer” or IT Engineer in our local speak.

I wrote about having the Cloud will be forcing many of us to be out of our jobs last month. I mentioned that the emergence of Cloud Computing will be superceding the roles of system integrators and resellers, because the Cloud Computing Service Provider will bypass these 2 layers and goes direct to the end user or customer. This will render the role of the IT engineer less significant when they are working for the reseller or partner. Scott’s blog goes a step further saying the the IT engineer role will be gone and they could be forced to be in the application development space for Cloud Computing.

The gist of my blog last month was to get the IT engineer to think deeper and think how they should evolve to adapt and to adopt to this new Cloud paradigm. In Malaysia, in my almost 20-years of IT in the Malaysian IT scene, I have seen the decline of IT engineer. I don’t see many of the younger generation to taking a passionate and enthusiastic fire to enhance their skills and learn even more than it is required for their job. This is a sad thing and through my voluntary work with SNIA Malaysia, I hope to get some of the senior engineers (despite all the fancy titles, we are still pretty much engineers) to get off the fence to start a strong IT community on storage networking and data management technologies. I am strong believer of “If you build it, they will come”.

I agree with what Scott has mentioned, that the role of an IT Engineer will not go away because you will always need an IT Engineer (or Infrastructure Engineer) to manage the infra. But the jobs available for these positions will get scarcer and lesser. So, to those IT engineers who are just so-so, (ooops), you are not good enough anymore.

Perhaps it is a chicken-and-egg thing to say that if there’s no market, why should the IT engineer learn something more to be different and enhance himself/herself. But if this chicken-and-egg debate thing was to continue, then we will forever be trapped in a loop that does not change our status in IT. We will be forever in a rut while others continue to pass us by.

I am always amazed by the amount of intelligent people drawn to the Silicon Valley and with the reknown technology universities such as Stanford, UC Berkeley, MIT and Carnegie Mellon continue to innovate, we continue to see the birth of better, greater and disruptive ideas coming out from Silicon Valley. The IT community in Silicon Valley is very strong and we continue to get IT people challenging the status quo and be different. And more and more “Silicon Valley”-like communities are birthing around the world. Malaysia, in my frank opinion, spends too much time glamourizing (if there’s such a word) IT (or ICT in local Malaysian terminology) and does little to address the core of IT. Our IT people are too complacent and too obedient to be different.

So, here’s my argument to the skeptics of this chicken-and-egg thing. Yes, we only do what we must do to earn our pay for the bread-and-butter stuff in our Malaysian IT, but it is also time to break out from this loop. It’s time to be different, and it’s time get deeper into IT.

Nothing gives me the creeps to see an IT engineer going out to the customer and start pitching speeds and feeds. Come on, any customer could read that off a brochure or a datasheet! So there is absolutely no value in the IT engineer if they only know how to pitch speeds and feeds. Get to know in depth of the solution. Get down into the hardcore of things like the philosophy of the design of the solution. Learn deeper about technology and even better, start thinking of new ways to challenge what’s already out there.

I spend a lot of time learning about file systems in storage networks and that’s my passion. I hope that more IT engineers would break away from the norm to do more. Believe me, as Cloud Computing becomes more prevalent in the Malaysia IT scene, there will be demand for damn good IT engineers, not the ones who knows only speeds and feeds.

Cloud Computing could make you lose your job unless…

This has been bugging me for a long time and I have to let it out.

First of all, cloud computing can mean a million things coming from different people. I am still in a haze sometimes of where this cloud thingy could lead too. Every IT vendor is “cloud-something” and I am not going to contest that because I am no cloud expert myself.

But one thing is imminent. The entire landscape from the IT infrastructure to the economics of IT, is changing into the utility model. This-as-a-Service, That-as-Service and so on. Customers and companies are beginning to realize the opportunity and the ability to lease IT services as a pay-as-you-use utility just like any public utility such as electricity and water.

In IT, we are used to the model of manufacturer –> vendor —> distributor –> reseller –> end customer. This has been the scheme of things and for those of us working as professionals for vendors, distributors and resellers, that’s our livelihood. But the cloud computing model is in the horizon. We are not too far off from such a scheme, where IT is operated as a utility company. This means that IT is directly provisioned to the end customer, likely to be bypassing the reseller model. Suddenly the model becomes manufacturer –> end customer. You get it, right?

We can still include the vendor, distributor and reseller into the new cloud computing landscape, but there is little value-add, and with market dynamics, the end customer would want to get their IT services supply directly from the manufacturer, in this case, the cloud service provider.

So where does that leave us? We could be the end-user OR we could work for a cloud service provider. That would mean little differentiation for IT engineers and sysadmins, IT sales reps and marketing people.

But this is not a doom-and-gloom story. In my opinion, this is the best time for IT geeks and nerds to become one notch better. Know your subject well in what you do, learn and grow your knowledge in the right direction, AND be DAMN good! That is where we can differentiate ourselves; move ourselves up the value chain and enhance our position. Don’t take the easy way out and be one of the ordinary. Be X-TRAordinary!!!