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Cloud computing – Report of IndicThreads Conference on Cloud Computing 2010

(This is a live-blog of the Indic Threads Conference on Cloud Computing, that’s being held in Pune. Since it’s being typed in a hurry, it is not necessarily as coherent and complete as we would like it to be, and also links might be missing. Also, this has notes only on selected talks. The less interesting ones have not been captured; nor have the ones I missed because I had to leave early on day 1.)

This is a live-report of the IndicThreads conference on cloud computing. Click on the logo to see other PuneTech posts about IndicThreads events.

This is the first instance of what will become IndicThreads’ annual conference on Upcoming Technology – and the theme this time is Cloud Computing. It will be a two day conference and you can look at the schedule here, and the profiles of the speakers here.

Choosing your Cloud Computing Service

The first talk was by Kalpak Shah, the founder and CEO of Clogeny, a company that does consulting & services in cloud computing. He gave a talk about the various choices available in cloud computing today, and how to go about picking the one that’s right for you. He separated out Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) which gives you the hardware and basic OS in the cloud (e.g. Amazon EC2), then Platform as a Service (PaaS) which gives you an application framework on top of the cloud infrastructure (e.g. Google AppEngine), and finally Software as a Service (SaaS) which also gives you business logic on top of the framework (e.g. SalesForce). He gave the important considerations you need to take into account before choosing the right provider, and the gotchas that will bite you. Finally he talked about the business issues that you need to worry about before you choose to be on the cloud or not. Overall, this was an excellent talk. Nice broad overview, lots of interesting, practical and useful information.

Diagram showing overview of cloud computing in...
Everybody is jumping on the cloud bandwagon. Do you know how to find your way around in the maze? Image via Wikipedia

Java EE 6 for the cloud

This talk is more fully captured in a separate PuneTech article.

The next talk is by Arun Gupta about JavaEE in the cloud. Specifically Java EE 6, which is an extreme makeover from previous versions. It makes it significantly easier to deploy applications in the cloud. It is well integrated with Eclipse, NetBeans and IntelliJ, so overall it is much easier on the developer than the previous versions.

Challenges in moving a desktop software to the cloud

Prabodh Navare of SAS is talking about their experiences with trying to move some of their software products to the cloud. While the idea of a cloud is appealing, there are challenges in moving an existing product to the cloud.

Here are the challenges in moving to a cloud based business model:

  • Customers are not going to switch unless the cost saving is exceptional. Minor savings are not good enough.
  • Deployment has to be exceptionally fast
  • High performance is an expectation. Customers somehow expect that the cloud has unlimited resources. So, if they’re paying for a cloud app, they expect that they can get whatever performance they demand. Hence, auto-scaling is a minimum rquirement.
  • Linear scaling is an expectation. But this is much easier said than done. Parallelization of tasks is a big pain. Must do lots of in-memory execution. Lots of caching. All of this is difficult.
  • Latency must be low. Google, facebook respond in a fraction of a second. So, users expect you will to.
  • If you’re using Linux (i.e. the LAMP stack), then, for achieving some of thees things, you’ll need to use Memcache, Hadoop..
  • You must code for failure. Failures are common in the cloud (at those scales). And you’re system needs to be designed to seamlessly recover from this.
  • Is customer lock-in good or bad? General consensus in cloud computing market is that data lock-in is bad. Hence you need to design for data portability.
  • Pricing: Deciding the price of your cloud based offering is really difficult.
    • Cost of the service per customer is difficult to judge (shared memory used, support cost, CPU consumed, bandwidth consumed)
    • In Kalpak’s talk, he pointed this out and one of the inhibitors of cloud computing for business
    • Customers expect pay-as-you-go. This needs a full-fledged effort to build an appropriate accounting and billing system, and it needs to be grafted into your application
    • To support pay-as-you-go effectively, you need to design different flavors of the service (platinum, gold, silver). It is possible that this might not be easy to do with your product.

Multi-cloud programming with jCloud

This talk is by Vikas Hazrati, co-founder and “software craftsman” at Inphina.

Lots of people are interested in using the cloud, but one of the things holding them back is cloud vendor lock-in. If one cloud doesn’t work out, they would like to be albe to shift to another. This is difficult.

To fix this problem, a bunch of multi-cloud libraries have been created which abstract out the clouds. Basically they export an API that you can program to, and they have implementations of their API on a bunch of major cloud providers. Examples of such multi-cloud libraries/frameworks are: Fog, Delta, LibCloud, Dasein, jCloud.

These are the things that are different from cloud to cloud:

  • Key-value store (i.e. the database)
  • File sizes
  • Resumability (can you stop and restart an application)
  • CDN (content delivery network)
  • Replication (some clouds have it and some don’t)
  • SLA
  • Consistency Model (nobody gives transaction semantics; everybody gives slightly different eventual consistency semantics)
  • Authorization
  • API complexity

APIs like jCloud try to shield you from all the differences in these.

jCloud allows a common API that will work on Amazon, Rackspace, VMWare and a bunch of other cloud vendors. It’s open source, performant, is based on closure, and most importantly, it allows unit testability across clouds. The testability is good because you can test without having to deploy on the cloud.

The abstractions provided by jCloud:

  • BlobStore (abstracts out key-value storage for: atmos, azure, rackspace, s3)
  • Compute (abstracts out vcloud, ec2, gogrid, ibmdev, rackspace, rimu)
  • Provisioning – adding/removing machines, turning them on and off

jCloud does not give 100% portability. It gives “pragmatic” portability. The abstraction works most of the time, but once in a while you can access the underlying provider’s API and do things which are not possible to do using jCloud.

A Lap Around Windows Azure

Diagram explaining the Windows Azure structure...
Windows Azure is Microsoft’s entry in the PaaS arena. Image via Wikipedia

This talk is by Janakiram, a Technical Architect (Cloud) at Microsoft.

Microsoft is the only company that plays in all three layers of the cloud:

  • IaaS – Microsoft System Center (Windows HyperV). Reliance is setting up a public cloud based on this in India.
  • PaaS – Windows Azure Platform (AppFabric, SQLAzure)
  • SaaS – Microsoft Online Services (MSOffice Web Application, MSExchange Online, MSOffice Communications Online, SharePoint Online)

The focus of this talk is the PaaS layer – Azure. Data is stored in SQLAzure, the application is hosted in Windows Azure and AppFabric allows you to connect/synchronize your local applications and data with the cloud. These together form the web operating system known as Azure.

The cloud completely hides the hardware, the scalability, and other details of the implementation from the developer. The only things the cloud exposes are: 1) Compute, 2) Storage, and 3) Management.

The compute service can have two flavors. There’s a “Web Role” is essentially the UI – it shows webpages and interacts with the user – based on IIS7. The “Worker Role” does not have a UI, and is expected to be “background” processes, often long-running, and operate on the storage directly. You can have Java Tomcat, Perl, Python, or whatever you want to run inside of a worker role. They demonstrated wordpress working on Azure – by porting mysql, php, and wordpress to the platform. Bottomline: you can put anything you want in a worker role.

Azure storage exposes a Blob (very much like S3, or any other cloud storage engine). This allows you to dump your data, serialized, to the disk. This can be combined with a CDN service to improve availability and performance. In addition you can use tables for fast read mostly access. And it gives you persistent queues. And finally, you get “Azure Drive”, a way to share raw storage across your apps. And all of this is available via a REST interface (which means that any app, anywhere on the web can access the data – not just .NET apps).

Building an Azure application is no different from designing, developing, debugging, and testing an ASP.NET application. There is a local, simulated cloud interface that allows you to try everything out locally before deploying it to the cloud.

Links for azure: http://www.microsoft.com/windowsazure, and http://msdn.microsoft.com/azure.

The slides will be uploaded at Janakiram’s blog: http://www.janakiram.net.

He exists on twitter as @janakiramm

Amazon EC2

Simone Brunozzi, a Technology Evangelist at Amazon Web Services, is talking about Amazon’s EC2.

Amazon Web Services logo
AWS has the broadest spectrum of services on offer in the cloud computing space, and the best partner/developer/tools ecosystem. Image via Wikipedia

Overview of Amazon Web Services: Compute(EC2, Elastic MapReduce, AutoScaling), Messaging(SQS, simple notification service), Storage (S3, EBS, import/export), Content Delivery (CloudFront), Monitoring (CloudWatch), Support, Database (SimpleDB, RDBMS), Networking (Virtual Private Cloud, Elastic Load Balancing), Payments & Billing (FPS – flexible payments service), e-Commerce (fws – fulfillment web service, Amazon DevPay), Web Traffic (Alexa Web Information, Alexa Top sites), Workflow (Amazon Mechanical Turk)!! See this link for more

AWS exists in US-West (2 locations), US-East (4 locations), Europe (2 locations), Asia-Pacific (2 locations). It’s architected for redundancy, so you get availability and failover for free.

EC2 essentially gives you virtual servers in the cloud, that can be booted from a disk image. You can choose your instance type from small to extra-large (i.e. how much memory, and CPU speed), and install an image on that machine. You can choose from a lot of pre-configured images (Linux, Solaris, Windows). These are basic OS installs, or more customized versions created by Amazon or the community. You can further customize this as you want, because you obviously, get root/administrator access on this computer. Then you can attach a “disk” to this “computer” – basically get an EBS, which is 1GB to 1TB in size. An EBS device is persistent, and is automatically replicated. If you want even better durability, then snapshot the EBS and store it to S3.

Scaling with EC2: Put an ELB (Elastic Load Balancer) in front of your EC2 instances, and it will automatically load balance across those (and give you a single URL to expose to your users). In addition, ELB does health-checks on the worker instances and removes the ones who are not performing up to the mark. If you use the CloudWatch monitoring service, you can do things like: “if average CPU usage across all my instances is above 80%, then add a new instance, and remove it once average CPU usage drops below 20%.” After this point, adding and removing instances will be fully automated.

It’s important to mention that AWS is very enterprise ready: it has certifications and security (needed for banking apps), SLAs, worldwide ecosystem of service integrators, and other partners. Another enterprise feature: Virtual Private Clouds. Basically, carve out a small area in the Amazon Public cloud which is only accessible through a VPN, and this VPN ends in the enterprise. Hence, nobody else can access that part of the cloud. (Note: this is different from a Private Cloud, which is physically located in the enterprise. Here, it is still physically located somewhere in Amazon’s data-centers, but a VPN is used to restrict access to one enterprise.)

Multi-tenancy in the Cloud

Multi-Tenant vs. Single-Tenant Architecture
Difference between single-tenant and multi-tenant apps. Image by andreasvongunten.com via Flickr

Vikas Hazrati (referenced earlier in this post), is talking about multi-tenancy. How do you give two different customers (or groups of customers) the impression that they are the only ones using a particular instance of a SaaS; but actually you’re using only one installation of the software.

Multi-tenancy is basically when you have a single infrastructure setup (software stack, database, hardware), but you want multiple groups to use it, and each should see a completely isolated/independent view. Basically, for security, one customer group does not want their data to be visible to anybody else. But we don’t want to give each group their own instance of the infrastracture, because that would be too expensive.

Variations on multi-tenancy. Easiest is to not do multi-tenancy – have separate hardware & software. Next step is to have multiple virtual machines on shared hardware. So hardware shared, software is not. If you’re sharing the middleware, you can do the following: 1. Multiple instances of the app on the same OS with independent memory, 2. Multiple instances of the app with shared memory, and 3. True multi-tenancy.

What level do you need to do multi-tenancy at? It could be at any layer: the database of course needs to be separable for different tenants. You can also do it at the business logic layer – so different tenants want different configurations of the business logic. And finally, you could also do this at the presentation logic – different tenants want different look’n'feel and branding.

Multi-tenancy in the database. Need to add a tenant-id to the database schema (and the rest of the schema is the same). A bit customer concern in this is that bugs in queries can result in data-leakage (i.e. a single poorly written query will result in your competitor seeing your sales leads data). This can be a huge problem. A typical SaaS vendor does this: put smaller customers in the same database with tenant-id, but for larger customers, offer them the option of having their data in a separate database.

Multi-tenancy in the cloud. This is really where the cloud shines. Multi-tenancy gives very low costs; especially compared to the non-multi-tenant version (also known as the on-premise version). For example, the cost of multi-tenant JIRA is $10 per month, while the on-premise version is $150 per month (for the same numbers of users).

Multi-tenancy example: SalesForce does a very fine-grained approach. Each user gets his own portion of the database based on primary-key. And there is a validation layer between the app and the database which ensures that all queries have a tenant-id. Fairly fine-grained, and fairly secure. But it is quite complex – lots of design, lots of thinking, lots of testing.

One big problem with multi-tenancy is that of the runaway customers. If a few customers are really using a large share of the resources, then the other customers will suffer. Limiting their resource usage, or moving them elsewhere are both difficult to do.

In general, some providers believe that having each app developer implement multi-tenancy in the app is inefficient. The solution to this is to virtualize the database/storage/other physical resources. In other words, for example, the database exports multiple virtual databases, one per tenant, and the underlying multi-tenant-database handles all the issues of multi-tenancy. Both Amazon’s RDS and Windows SQLAzure provide this service.

Google released the namespaces API for Google AppEngine just a few days back, and that takes a different approach. The multi-tenancy is handled at the highest level of the app, but there’s a very easy way of specifying the tenant-id and everything else is handled by the platform. However, note that multi-tenancy is currently supported only for 3 of their services, and will break if you use one of the others.

Issues in multi-tenancy:

  • Security: all clients are worried about this
  • Impact of other clients: customers hogging resources is still not a solved problem
  • Some customers are willing to pay for a separate instance: and it’s a pain for us to implement and manage
  • Multi-tenancy forces users to upgrade when the app is upgraded. And many customers don’t want to be upgraded forcefully. To handle this issue, many SaaS providers make new features available only via configuration options, not as a forced upgrade.
  • Configurations/customizations can only be done upto some level
  • There is no user acceptance testing. We test, and users have to take it when we make it live.

When should you not use multi-tenancy?

  • Obviously, when security is a concern. e.g. Google not doing this for government data
  • High customization and tight integration will make all the advantages of multi-tenancy disappear

SaaS-ifying a traditional application

Chirag Jog, CTO at Clogeny Technologies, a PICT ex-student, talking about the choices and issues faced in converting a traditional application to a SaaS, based on a real-life scenario they faced. The case study is of a customer in Pune, who was using his own infrastructure to host a standard web app (non-cloud), and occasional spikes in user requests would cause his app to go down. Dedicated hosting was too expensive for him – hence the need to move it to the cloud.

Different choices were: SaaS on top of shared infrastructure (like slicehost), or SaaS on top of PaaS (like AppEngine), or SaaS on top of IaaS (Amazon EC2, Rackspace). PaaS seems great, but real-life problems make you re-think: Your existing app is written in a language (or version of a language) that is not supported on the PaaS. Or has optimizations for a local deployment. Specific libraries might be missing. Thus, there’s lots of code change, and lots of testing, and stability will be a problem.

Hence, they decided to go with SaaS on IaaS. Basically simply moving the existing local app to the same software stack on to a server in IaaS. The app itself was largely compute intensive, so they decided to use the existing app as a ‘server’ and built a new client that talks to the server and serves up the results over the web. For this, the server(s) and client went on Amazon EC2 instances, Simple Queueing Service (SQS) was used to communicate between the ‘client’ and the ‘server’, and automatic scaling was used to scale the app (multiple compute servers). This not only helped the scalability & load balancing, but they were able to use this to easily create multiple classes of users (queue cheapo users, and prioritize priority customers) – improved business logic!

Cloud Security – Threats and Mitigations

Internet - Good Or Bad?
If there’s a malicious hacker in your cloud, you could be in trouble. And it is your responsibility, not the cloud vendor. Image by Mikey G Ottawa via Flickr

Vineet Mago and Naresh Khalasi (the company that @rni and @dnene are associated with) are talking about the privacy and security issues they faced in putting their app on the cloud, and how to deal with those.

Good thing about the cloud is that the cloud vendor takes care of all the nitty-gritty, and the developer need not worry about it. The presenters disagree – especially where privacy and security are concerned. You have to worry about it. It is your responsibility. And if you’re not careful, you’ll get into trouble, because the vendors are not. Protecting against malicious hackers is still your responsibility; cloud vendor doing nothing about it.

The Cloud Security Alliance publishes best practices for security in the cloud. Recommneded.

You need to worry about the following forms of security:

  • Physical security: who gets into the building? cameras?
  • Network security: firewall, anti-DDoS, authorization controls
  • System security: anti-virus, active directory, disabling USB
  • Application security: AAA, API security, release management (no release goes out without proper audits and checks by different departments)

And there are three aspects you need to think about:

  • Confidentiality: can your data get into the wrong hands? What if cloud provider employee gets his hands on the data?
  • Integrity: can the data be corrupted? Accidentally? Maliciously?
  • Availability: Can someone make your data unavailable for a period of time? DDoS?

Remember, if you’re using the cloud, the expectation is that you can do this with a very small team. This is a problem because the effort to take into account the security aspects doesn’t really reduce. It increases. Note: it is expected that a team of 2 people can build a cloud app (R&D). However, if a networked app needs to be deployed securely, we’d expect the team size to be 30.

State of the art in cloud security:

  • IaaS: provider gives basic firewall protection. You get nothing else.
  • PaaS: Securing the infrastructure (servers, network, OS, and storage) is the provider’s responsibility. Application security is your responsibility
  • SaaS: Network, system and app security is provider’s job. SLAs, security, liability expectation mentioned in agreements. Best. But least flexibility for developers.

Problems with cloud security:

  • Unknown risk profile: All of them, IaaS, PaaS, and SaaS, are unknowns as far as security is concerned. This industry is just 4 years old. There are areas that are dark. What to do?
    • Read all contracts/agreements carefully and ask questions.
    • Ask provider for disclosure of applicable logs and data.
    • Get partial/full disclosure of infrastructure details (e.g. patch levels, firewalls, etc.)
  • Abuse and nefarious use of cloud computing: Applies to IaaS, PaaS. If hackers are using using Amazon EC2 instances to run malware, then there are two problems. First, malware could exploit security loop-holes in the virtualization software and might be able to access your virtual machine which happens to be on the same physical machine as the hacker’s virtual machine. Another problem is that the provider’s machines/IP-addresses enter public blacklists, and that will cause problems. What to do?
    • Look for providers that have strict initial registration requirements.
    • Check levels of credit card fraud monitoring and co-ordination used by the provider
    • Is the provider capable of running a comprehensive introspection of customer network traffic?
    • Monitor public blacklists for one’s own network IP blocks
  • Insecure Interfaces and APIs: 30% of your focus in designing an API should go into building a secure API. e.g. Twitter API does not use https. So anybody at this conference today could sniff the wi-fi here, sniff the network traffic, get the authentication token, and run a man-in-the-middle attack. Insecure API. What to do?
    • Analyze the security model of cloud provider’s interfaces
    • Build limits into your apps to prevent over-use of your apps
  • Malicious Insiders: “In 3 years of working at company, you’ll have the root passwords of all the servers in the company!” Is your security policy based on the hope that all Amazon AWS employees are honest? What to do?
    • Know what are the security breach notification processes of your provider, and determine your contingency plans based on that information
    • Read the fine print in the contracts/agreements before deciding on cloud vendors
  • Shared Technology Issues: There are various ways in which a malicious program in a virtual machine can access underlying resources from the hypervisor and access data from other virtual machines by exploiting security vulnerabilities. What to do?
    • Implement security best practices for your virtual servers
    • Monitor environment for unauthorized changes/activity
    • Enforce vendor’s SLAs for patching and vulnerability remediation
    • Example: Amazon allows you to run penetration testing, but you need to request permission to do that

Summary

Overall, a good conference. Some great talks. Not too many boring talks. Quality of attendees was quite good. Met a bunch of interesting people that I hadn’t seen in POCC/PuneTech events. You should be able to find slides of all the talks on the conference website.

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Comments

5 responses to Cloud computing – Report of IndicThreads Conference on Cloud Computing 2010

  1. Pushkar Joshi says:

    Great. Live blogging has been really helpful for people like me, who could not attend it in person. Thanks and keep such great work going. :)

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