Cloud Computing: Clearing Away Infrastructure Muck

 
 
By Chuck Phillips  |  Posted 2009-10-28
 
 
 

Marketing has approached you with an interesting idea for an interactive gaming application that could go viral in a big way and draw hundreds of thousands of visitors—millions even—to your Website. The research for the game, dubbed Project X, is done, the numbers look good and everyone is excited about its potential.

Now it’s time to think about the costs, specifically the infrastructure required to launch such a campaign.

Traditionally, your best and only option has been to buy or lease the various components of the infrastructure and contract with one or more content delivery networks (CDNs) for added performance and scalability. This approach comes with its fair share of problems.

The first is cost. Maintaining infrastructure is a pricey, ongoing expenditure. The second is hardware provisioning, which most IT professionals know is a tricky game because it forces you to walk a fine line between wasted resources and potential downtime in the event of massive traffic spikes.

Another new, increasingly viable option is cloud computing, which allows you to convert infrastructure from a capital expenditure into a relatively inexpensive operating expenditure by outsourcing the “undifferentiated muck,” what Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos terms the infrastructure life cycle, to a so-called cloud provider. By outsourcing to a cloud solution, you eliminate the need to manage most, if not all, of the muck, thereby mitigating your operating expenditures.

Cloud Manifestations

There are three primary manifestations of cloud computing:

• Software as a Service: SaaS options are plentiful and diverse. SaaS is usually tailored to solve specific problems and would be a candidate for reducing operating expenditures elsewhere in your operation, but our focus now is on Project X.

• Platform as a Service: PaaS offerings such as Google’s AppEngine or Microsoft’s Azure Services Platform would be a better option for Project X. PaaS provides a computing platform without the muck. However, in order to deploy Project X with PaaS, your developers would need to adhere to the APIs provided. Therefore, you may want a solution with less of a learning curve and a little more freedom to define your technology stack.

• Infrastructure as a Service: Arguably, IaaS providers, such as Amazon Web Services (AWS), offer the most familiar and least restrictive computation resources. Computation resources are virtual, but look and feel much like those that your developers and systems engineers are used to.

Your team is free to choose the development platform and programming frameworks that make sense for Project X. AWS offerings are sold as metered services—as utilities, basically. You pay only for the services you use, and there is no contract, no provisioning process and no muck. You put the heavy lifting on the shoulders of the security experts and engineers at AWS so you can spend your money on providing value to your users in ways that they can recognize.

Thanks to the self-serve, elastic nature of IaaS, you avoid the tricky task of hardware provisioning. No more waste from overplanning for traffic that didn’t come. No more downtime and disgruntled users that result from underplanning. Using a metered, auto-scaling infrastructure that grows and shrinks based on demand means that you pay only for what you need.

Cloud computing is a business-driven technology, meaning that the business is coming to IT with real problems to solve. Capital and operating expenditures are only a couple of the necessary business evils that cloud computing tends to mitigate.

Cloud computing can also take some of the sting out of unmet expectations. If your campaign doesn’t meet expectations and needs to be shut down, you aren’t stuck paying for infrastructure that must be reconfigured for another use or, even worse, “eBay-ing” it at a loss. Instead, you quietly decommission the site.

While the concept of cloud computing isn’t new, the realization of it is. IT executives are regularly approached with initiatives like Project X that have dynamic and costly infrastructure requirements. Cloud-based infrastructure is an increasingly viable alternative for them—and you—to consider seriously.

Chuck Phillips is CTO at Digitaria, a digital marketing and technology firm based in San Diego.