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CloudFormation – Cool, But Who Is It For?

A few weeks ago Amazon released a new feature for Amazon Web Services (AWS) called CloudFormation

A few weeks ago Amazon released a new feature for Amazon Web Services (AWS) called CloudFormation.  This allows a user to organize the process for provisioning and operating resources in the AWS environment and is an evolution of the AWS model of “some assembly required.”  We have often viewed the features and functions within AWS as a box of parts, from which users are left to build their own creations.  This model is highly biased towards developers, the kind of people who like to have a box of parts and are willing to put in the effort to build new and interesting creations from them.

CloudFormation allows a user to coordinate a number of features within Amazon’s environment, such as: launch a set of AMIs (virtual machine image w/ application), configure a security group (pseudo firewall), setup an ELB (Amazon’s version of a web load balancer), and configure CloudWatch monitoring and alarms.  All of this can be managed from a template that describes each of these setup steps, and is written in easy-to-use JSON.

So this new feature is pretty cool, but after working with it for a while, I’ve been wondering who the target user is.  If you are a developer that is interacting with AWS through their API, then you already have a method of coordinating the resources and services in Amazon.  By definition, up to this point, you had no choice.  But more than that, if you are programming to the API, you want to have control over the details of your deployment, and to be able to monitor the steps and process.  The CloudFormation is an alternative to your current methods, but is not necessarily better – if you are using the APIs, you still have to monitor the progress and deal with faults during the CloudFormation process.

On the other side of the spectrum, there are the “enterprise-class” users who are looking for full configuration management of their deployments – they want to control the full lifecycle of their system and software deployments including change control of all of the components within the system.  The CloudFormation solution is really a provisioning engine, and even at that, it leaves off the early and late parts of provisioning – the actual configuration of the base servers, and the “customization” aspects of running in Amazon. Configuration and customization include things like creating the base images, controlling the OS configuration (kernels, boot parameters, etc.), selecting device drivers for consistent integration and operation, adjusting for randomly-changing IP addresses in Amazon, configuring load balancing based on the notion of instance ID rather than IP address, etc.  The actual construction of the application and the configuration of the OS is done outside of CloudFormation, with CloudFormation operating as a provisioning engine.

Given that the developers have the tools they need to coordinate the provisioning and the enterprises are looking for full configuration management, where does this leave the target market for CloudFormation?  Clearly the Amazon console users that are interacting with Amazon through the AWS portal are best served by this new feature.  CloudFormation gives these users a simple “portal” for provisioning and managing their cloud deployments – but it comes at the cost of programmatic access and integration with existing application lifecycle tools and processes. Console interaction drives cloud activity into its own silo, and fosters the concept of the cloud as being a separate, foreign, and independent environment.

So what does this feature mean for CloudSwitch customers?  Not much really, since our customers are looking for tight integration with their existing systems and processes, and want to have end-to-end control over their virtual hardware, operating systems, and application configuration.  While CloudFormation is designed to allow a user to coordinate a number of features and functions of AWS, the user still has to use the new and somewhat different components provided by AWS. For example: using AMIs for their VM images, limitations on the kernels, operating systems, and OS configurations, firewall and load balancing configurations that are non-standard, and behaviors in the deployment and operation that deviate from the expected behavior in the enterprise.

In the CloudSwitch model, if a user wants to configure a firewall, they use a full-featured firewall with full configurability, not an Amazon-specific version; if a user wants to monitor their applications, they use their existing tools and processes; and if a user wants to have full configuration management of their deployments, they can control every detail of their servers virtual hardware, operating systems, networking, and applications – and not conform to the restrictions of the cloud provider.  As our customers know, CloudSwitch is about giving the enterprise full control over cloud configurations and processes, rather than coordinating the components that a cloud provider delivers.

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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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