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Opinion: "Cloud in a Box" Gets Boxed In

Another big company joining the cloud computing tsunami - Oracle

Just a week after our blog post on the telcos, we find another big company joining the cloud computing tsunami – Oracle’s announcement of its “cloud in a box” offering as well as new offerings of Oracle software running on Amazon’s EC2.

For a company whose leader shunned the term “cloud” last year, this is a lot of cloud announcements in one week.  Oracle’s new Exalogic Elastic Cloud is perhaps the first Sun-Oracle-in-a-box“cloud in a box” solution that is actually delivered in a box (of hardware).  Unlike the offerings we have seen from Eucalyptus, Nimbula, Azure, and VMware, the Exalogic product contains the control software as well as the hardware components to make a virtualized resource pool.  The other vendors have focused on delivering a software solution that can be combined with the users’ choice of servers, storage, and networking gear to build a cloud.

Oracle, powered by Sun’s server and system technology, has decided to deliver a complete cloud solution that contains up to 360 CPU cores, 2.8TB of RAM, and 40TB of storage in a single rack of equipment.  This big box is reportedly priced at just over $1M.  Oracle’s motivation for this box is to deliver on the promise of building an entire stack of both hardware and software that has been engineered to work together to deliver better performance, reliability, and scale.  Overall, the Exalogic system has impressive performance characteristics and may be a great solution for data center consolidation, but…

Placing the term “Elastic” in the name of this offering is stretching the accepted definition of the term as it relates to cloud computing.  The Exalogic server is a contained set of resources that is purchased, operated, and maintained as part of the enterprise infrastructure.  You can scale your applications up and down within this solution, but in the end, you are limited to the number of cores, amount or RAM, and size of the storage you purchased.  While you can add more racks to the solution, you are stuck paying for the whole thing independent from what you really use – not exactly elastic or pay for only what you use.  My only other problem with Exalogic is the range of supported operating systems – we like the Linux and Solaris support, but a quote from Rick Schultz of Oracle – “There is no demand for Windows at the moment” – makes me wonder who they are talking to.  More than half the enterprise workloads CloudSwitch has deployed to the cloud are Windows-based; how can there be no demand for Windows in Exalogic?

The other interesting difference in the Exalogic solution as compared to the big (public) cloud offerings is the design center for the hardware.  Clouds like Amazon and Google were developed around “stripped down” servers to act as generic compute components.  The redundant components normally used to improve the reliability of a server are removed from the compute nodes to reduce the component cost, and software and other application-level techniques are used to make up for the fail-able components.  Each of the servers in the Exalogic solution has redundant power supplies, 2 solid state disk drives, and redundant Infiniband controllers.  This more expensive hardware allows the system to survive component failures with minimal disruption to the running applications – a traditional enterprise infrastructure design, with high reliability to support a lot of VM’s packed on a single piece of hardware.

The difference between the two approaches highlights the upcoming battle between architectures in the cloud – stripped down commodity servers versus highly available high-end servers as the basis for cloud computing.  The early leader in this space is the commodity server approach because of the types of applications initially targeted to clouds – stateless horizontally scalable web applications.  But as we start putting more core enterprise applications into the cloud, the HA architectures become more interesting, and thus we expect this architecture to gain ground.  We see these architectures gaining ground already with clouds like Terremark, BlueLock, and Savvis.

The other announcement this week from Oracle is expanded support for running Oracle software in Amazon’s Elastic Compute Cloud.  Oracle has provided templates (AMI’s) in Amazon for its database software since 2008, and this week they have expanded the number of applications they will support in Amazon to include Oracle E-Business Suite, Oracle's PeopleSoft Enterprise, Oracle's Siebel CRM, Oracle Fusion Middleware, Oracle Database, and Oracle Linux.  In addition to expanding the software supported on AWS, Oracle has taken the step of “certifying” the software for operation in Amazon.  This means that customers can now get support from both Oracle and AWS for those applications.  Although Oracle’s lead cloud story seems to be about the Exalogic box, I believe that this announcement does more to advance cloud computing for enterprises.  Support for these key Oracle products in Amazon’s cloud adds credibility to public cloud computing, as it allows enterprises to really use the cloud for their core applications.  This is one of the areas that a cloud provider cannot fix, it is up to the software vendors to expand their horizons to embrace the cloud and Oracle is blazing the trail.

I think the only downside to the Oracle-Amazon announcement is the lack of integration with Oracle’s control software.  The FAQ’s from Amazon and Oracle emphatically state that the management controls for Oracle deployments to the cloud is exclusively the Amazon console and tool set.  This is a shame since we believe that seamless integration between the data center and the cloud is key to a successful enterprise cloud deployment; creating a disjointed environment just adds work with no value for the enterprise and ultimately leads to cloud lock-in. Our enterprise customers have told us consistently that they want a “single pane of glass” from which they can manage pools of resources both internal and external.

Finally, while I like the architecture of the Exalogic Elastic Cloud, and believe that it could form the basis of a new class of cloud computing offerings, it too may be missing a critical point.  If an enterprise decides to deploy their private cloud on this technology, there is no connection or relationship between the applications deployed to the private cloud and those running in the public cloud.  This, once again, highlights the importance of cloud federation – you will never break the cycle of buying more hardware and infrastructure if you don’t embrace technology that allows you to access the public clouds.

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More Stories By John Considine

John Considine is Co-Founder & CTO of Cloudswitch. He brings two decades of technology vision and proven experience in complex enterprise system development, integration and product delivery to CloudSwitch. Before founding CloudSwitch, he was Director of the Platform Products Group at Sun Microsystems, where he was responsible for the 69xx virtualized block storage system, 53xx NAS products, the 5800 Object Archive system, as well as the next generation NAS portfolio.

Considine came to Sun through the acquisition of Pirus Networks, where he was part of the early engineering team responsible for the development and release of the Pirus NAS product, including advanced development of parallel NAS functions and the Segmented File System. He has started and boot-strapped a number of start-ups with breakthrough technology in high-performance distributed systems and image processing. He has been granted patents for RAID and distributed file system technology. He began his career as an engineer at Raytheon Missile Systems, and holds a BS in Electrical Engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

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