Recap: CloudCamp Edmonton

Tonight was the first-ever CloudCamp here in Edmonton, an unconference focused on cloud computing. Held at the Shaw Conference Centre, kind of in conjunction with Microsoft’s Tech Days (happening tomorrow and Wednesday), around 60 people attended. Here’s the brief overview:

CloudCamp is an unconference where early adopters of Cloud Computing technologies exchange ideas. With the rapid change occurring in the industry, we need a place where we can meet to share our experiences, challenges and solutions. At CloudCamp, you are encouraged to share your thoughts in several open discussions, as we strive for the advancement of Cloud Computing. End users, IT professionals and vendors are all encouraged to participate.

The format was similar to other unconference events. Moderated by Larry Carvalho, we started with six lightning talks:

  • Barnaby Jeans went first and gave an overview of Microsoft’s cloud computing strategy and offerings.
  • Associate Professor Paul Lu from the University of Alberta was up next and talked about the university’s proposed adoption of Gmail, its experimentation with Google’s Fusion Tables, and its research work on virtualized RAM.
  • Third was Rob Bissett from 6fusion. He talked more about infrastructure-as-a-service as well as the need for consistent price-per-compute units across the industry.
  • Li-Yan Yuan, a Professor at the University of Alberta, talked about LogicSQL, which is basically a grid architecture for a DBMS.
  • Fifth was Sean Ouimet, who dared to be different and used a flipchart instead of slides to talk about how to design your applications for the cloud so that they scale.
  • Last but not least was Timothy Dalby, winner of Make Web Not War, who discussed his application Find-A-Home.

CloudCamp Edmonton

After the lightning talks, Larry asked everyone in the audience to raise their hands if they thought they were an expert in cloud computing. The four guys that raised their hands become the panelists on the “unpanel” (and it was guys…I think there was maybe one woman in the whole audience). Everyone in the audience then had the opportunity to ask questions, which the panel fielded. Larry took notes, and the questions eventually formed the basis for the breakout sessions.

Some of the topics that came up included: geography (where is your data located), multi-tenancy, cost, building a cloud application, and startup opportunities. We ended up breaking into just two separate groups though, one more focused on the business side and one focused more on the technical side.

I decided to join the business group, and for an hour or so we had a really great (not to mention really broad) discussion about the impacts of cloud computing. I had to leave before the two groups came together again, but that was to be the final part of CloudCamp.

One of the more basic questions that arose throughout the evening was the difference between the various “as-a-service” offerings:

  1. Software-as-a-Service
  2. Platform-as-a-Service
  3. Infrastructure-as-a-Service

I think the Wikipedia articles do a good job of explaining each one, so I won’t expand on that here. I tend to think of it like this: SaaS is something like hosted Exchange, PaaS is something like Azure (which hosted Exchange runs on), and IaaS is something like Amazon S3 (which could host the Azure data).

It was great to see so many people interested in discussing cloud computing! You can see a few more photos from the evening here.

Amazon S3 keeps getting better, now supports versioning

A good thing really can get better! Amazon S3, perhaps the most well-known cloud computing infrastructure service, just got another upgrade. The simple storage service now supports versioning:

Versioning provides an additional layer of protection for your S3 objects. You can easily recover from unintended user errors or application failures. You can also use Versioning for data retention and archiving.

This new feature will give the thousands of websites and services using S3 a quick and easy to way to support undo or file revision histories, among other things. It kind of moves S3 “up the stack” a little, in that it can now do something that developers could have built themselves, but in a simple and easy-to-use way.

Combine this powerful new functionality with Import/Export that launched last year and a couple of recent price drops, and it’s easy to see why Amazon continues to lead the way. Developers continue to make extensive use of the service too. At the end of Q3 2009, there were over 82 billion objects stored in Amazon S3. Just incredible.

I remember when S3 launched back in March 2006, when I was building Podcast Spot, a hosting service for podcasters. It completely changed our business. Global, scalable storage with Amazon worrying about all the details? And for such a small cost? It seemed too good to be true. I’m thrilled to see that S3 just keeps getting better, with relatively frequent price reductions too.

Microsoft Announcement Day 2008

windows logo Today was the first day of Microsoft’s Professional Developers Conference, but they may as well have called it official announcement day! For anyone who uses Microsoft technologies on a day-to-day basis, today is a day to remember. Definitely one for the history books of technology.

The big announcement was Windows Azure:

Today, during a keynote speech at the Microsoft Professional Developers Conference 2008 (PDC2008), Ray Ozzie, Microsoft Corp.’s chief software architect, announced Windows Azure, the cloud-based service foundation underlying its Azure Services Platform, and highlighted this platform’s role in delivering a software plus services approach to computing.

That’s a lot of marketing speak, but as usual Mary Jo Foley has a great post breaking Azure down. I’d suggest you read that to get a better idea of what exactly Azure is all about.

A few other interesting announcements:

That’s a lot of stuff for one day! As a developer, I’m a bit overwhelmed with the Azure announcement. It’s going to take a while to process. Very exciting though!

UPDATE: Colinizer has another great summary of today’s announcements on his blog. Check it out!

Amazon Web Services: Still getting better

aws logo I often think back to 2006 when Dickson and I were in the midst of the VenturePrize business plan competition. It was around that time that Amazon.com launched their first web service, the Simple Storage Service (S3). It had a huge impact on our business, and we’ve been extremely happy customers ever since.

Over the last couple of years, Amazon has introduced a number of additional web services, the most well-known of which might be the Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2). You can think of it like an on-demand computer in the cloud. I had a quick look at it when it launched, but being a Windows shop, we really didn’t have time to invest the extra effort necessary to get it running. Now, Amazon has announced that EC2 will support Windows:

Starting later this Fall, Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) will offer the ability to run Microsoft Windows Server or Microsoft SQL Server. Our goal is to support any and all of the programming models, operating systems and database servers that you need for building applications on our cloud computing platform. The ability to run a Windows environment within Amazon EC2 has been one of our most requested features, and we are excited to be able to provide this capability. We are currently operating a private beta of Amazon EC2 running Windows Server and SQL Server.

Very cool news for Windows developers. It should put some extra pressure on Microsoft too – though apparently they are getting ready to launch something. Watch for more news on that at PDC.

Another interesting new service that Amazon is introducing is a Content Delivery Service:

This new service will provide you a high performance method of distributing content to end users, giving your customers low latency and high data transfer rates when they access your objects. The initial release will help developers and businesses who need to deliver popular, publicly readable content over HTTP connections.

It will run atop S3, so anything that currently exists there can easily be added to the new content delivery network. This is very cool, and will finally bring world-class CDN infrastructure to small businesses. I wish they had introduced this two years ago!

Those are both very important improvements to AWS. Amazon is raising the bar, again. When will Microsoft, Google, and others answer?

Also – I just noticed recently that Amazon has redesigned the AWS website. It looks fantastic, in my opinion, and is much easier to navigate. Keep the positive improvements coming!

Offline access is more important than ever

offline folder Even though we still don’t have “wireless everywhere” (as I like to say), access to the Internet is indeed becoming more pervasive. Until the world is blanketed in wireless however, there will always be a place for offline applications. Sometimes you need to get some work done, with or without an Internet connection. Unreliable access or no access at all might have been the driving force behind offline applications in the past, but now there’s a new reason: cloud computing.

The term “cloud computing” is a bit like Web 2.0 in that it is used as a blanket term, but essentially it means accessing applications and services via the Internet (“in the cloud”) without worrying about the infrastructure that supports them. One of the best examples is GMail, Google’s email service that lets you manage your messages in any browser. It’s also a good example of why offline, synchronizing applications are so important – GMail went down completely yesterday:

Gmail is having a systemwide outage affecting multiple countries, and a whole bunch of its 100 million users are screaming about it on Twitter. Around 20 million people visit Gmail each day, according to Comscore, and they’re all seeing the same message. The first outages were reported at about 2 pm PST, 44 minutes ago.

One of the things that makes cloud computing different than services in the past is that more and more businesses rely on things like GMail to operate. When it goes down, so does a significant part of their business.

There’s a transition underway. Businesses are realizing that it doesn’t make sense to operate their own data centers and services when Google, Microsoft, and others can do it far more efficiently. But don’t let those names fool you, as GigaOm points out:

If an outage of this magnitude can strike Google, the company with a fearsome infrastructure, I wonder who — if any — can plan for the worst.

It’s extremely difficult to maintain 24×7 operations, even for a company like Google. The only reasonable thing to do is assume that service will go down at some point, and to plan accordingly.

For that reason, I think offline access and synchronization are two things that developers will need to focus on in the future. Like the other big challenge facing developers, multi-core computing, improved technologies and toolsets will be needed. Vendors are working on it, Google with Gears and Microsoft with the Sync Framework, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.

Cloud computing is great, and I’m excited about the opportunities that it provides. We have to realize that it’s only part of the equation, however. Offline access and synchronization are more important than ever.

Let Microsoft run Exchange for you

microsoft exchange Live Mesh and other consumer facing initiatives tend to garner the majority of the headlines related to Microsoft’s cloud computing initiatives, but it’s the simple, more boring things like hosted Exchange services that will probably have a bigger direct impact on the bottom line. I’ve run my own servers for a long time now, and while it isn’t incredibly difficult it is time consuming. I’d definitely welcome a switch to having Microsoft run them for me. They seem think it’s going to happen very quickly:

In an interview ahead of the Reuters Global Technology, Media and Telecoms Summit, Chris Capossela, who manages Microsoft’s Office products, said the company will see more and more companies abandon their own in-house computer systems and shift to “cloud computing,” a less expensive alternative.

“In five years, 50 percent of our Exchange mailboxes will be Exchange Online,” said Capossela, who expects a portion of Exchange Online customers to come from customers switching from International Business Machines’ (IBM.N) Lotus Domino system.

When you run your own Exchange server, there’s a lot of things you need to worry about. You need to ensure it is patched with the latest updates, that the junk mail filters are configured correctly, that data is being backed up properly, etc. It would be much better if Microsoft just did all of that for me.

I know there are already companies that do this sort of thing, but there’s something about having Microsoft behind the service that appeals to me. They should be the experts on their own software, after all. And I’m sure they’ll eventually offer a suite of these services that’ll just be a no-brainer for small businesses.

Why buy, install, and support an increasingly expensive Small Business Server, when you can just pay Microsoft a monthly fee to do it all for you? That’s where cloud computing will have the biggest impact on businesses.

Read: Yahoo! News

Microsoft's Live Mesh

live mesh One of the big tech stories today was the launch of Live Mesh, Microsoft’s new platform for synchronizing files, applications, and other stuff across different devices. I read quite a few articles about Live Mesh, and I have to admit I find it daunting to comprehend. Here’s the definition from Mary Jo Foley:

“Live Mesh is a ’software-plus-services’ platform and experience from Microsoft that enables PCs and other devices to ‘come alive’ by making them aware of each other through the Internet, enabling individuals and organizations to manage, access, and share their files and applications seamlessly on the Web and across their world of devices.” If I were in charge of defining Live Mesh, I think I’d go with “a Software + Services platform for synchronization and collaboration.”

Complex, exciting, and confusing all at once. Scoble says synchronization is just the beginning too.

Here’s what Live Mesh means to me: Microsoft is serious about cloud computing, and they’re prepared to be an important player in the space.

That’s really all I care about at this point. I’m sure Live Mesh will look vastly different in two years than it does today. I’m just glad Ray Ozzie is behind it. I absolutely love Groove and expect that Live Mesh will be like Groove on major steroids!

Some observations:

Developers, you can get started here. It’s not live yet, but they’ll have a technology preview program soon. For everyone else, check out the pretty pictures here.

Read: Ten things to know about Microsoft’s Live Mesh