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XRDS: Conference Coverage

CloudExpo Europe, a major event in the field of cloud computing, will take place in London on September 8-9, 2010. Recently, we sent XRDS editor Dmitry Batenkov to report on a similar event, IGT2009, to find out what these conferences have in store for students. For more on cloud computing, see XRDS: Crossroads 16.3.

Conference Coverage

IGT2009—THE World Summit of Cloud Computing

By Dmitry Batenkov

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Do you know what the driving force is behind cloud computing? According to Yossi Vardi, an Israeli "internet-guru," it is “the joy of collaboration.”

In an inspiring keynote address which opened IGT2009 (which took place December 2 and 3, 2009, at Kibbutz Shfaim, Israel), Vardi — who happens to be the creator of ICQ—argued that in order to really understand the huge success of the Internet, we have to remember that “the people are the killer app” and they always want to feel "togetherness."

This observation may explain a lot, but it hardly clarifies what cloud computing actually means.

As can be expected, the answer depends on whom you ask.

IGT2009, or “The World Summit of Cloud Computing,” was organized for the second year in a row by the Israeli Association of Grid Technologies and featured 50 speakers from leading industry companies, government representatives, and non-commercial organizations. There was a good mix of technological and executive-level stuff, and for a person like me, who is just starting to look up at the clouds, it was very informative.


So, how did the participants define cloud computing?

Ric Telford from IBM believes that cloud computing is just a new, economically compelling way to deliver IT services that were always there. For Hal Stern from Sun (now with Oracle), cloud computing is “taking some very old idea—virtualization—putting it down on a programmatic control, and then doing it on a very large scale.” Reuven Cohen, founder and CTO of Enomaly, is clear about this: “Cloud computing is a buzzword which describes the evolution of technology. Describing it from a technical point of view is meaningless.” Alistair Croll from Bitcurrent takes it to the extreme, calling it, “the grey matter for the next round of human cognition.”

It also relates to other buzzwords, for instance, “Cloud is around SOA” (Liam Lynch from eBay), or, “Grid is SaaS in cloud” (Avner Aglom, IGT). And if you would like to describe cloud computing to your grandma, people suggest “an electricity grid” (this one is the most popular), “a milkman” (interesting but somewhat an anachronism, by Dani Shomron from SaaS) or simply “the Internet.”

By the way, someone pointed out that from the marketing perspective, labeling your technology as “cloud-ready” might do your business more harm than good.

Risky Business

Matching the multitude of definitions was the diversity of topics discussed. The first and foremost matter was, as usual, security. After all, security is what prevents a technology from becoming wide-spread. Daniele Catteddu, a co-writer of the comprehensive 125-page Cloud Computing Security Risk Assessment (recently released by the European Network and Information Security Agency and a highly recommended read), said that the security for the cloud is not mature enough and so more research is needed. In his report, he also makes some concrete recommendations for the cloud users as to which assurances they should seek from the providers, as well as legal recommendations to the European Union.

Another major security initiative was presented by Liam Lynch, the chief security strategist at eBay. Luckily, there is the Cloud Security Alliance, a nonprofit organization whose goal is to provide security guidance and best practices for adopters of cloud computing. In April 2009 the group released Security Guidance for Critical Areas of Focus in Cloud Computing, although it is very much a work in progress.

A lot of discussions at IGT revolved around the possibility of future “vendor lock-in” and how to avoid it. To make a long story short, the world will need an open-source analogue for the cloud - some kind of “open services,” which will be based on open standards and will put pressure on the big commercial players like Amazon to keep their prices reasonable, Much like what Linux did to the operating systems market. That’s why there is a growing activity to define standards for cloud interoperability.

Open cloud computing Interface Workgroup of the Open Grid Forum (OGF) is currently trying to define an HTTP-based RESTFul protocol which, according to their vision, should become the standard for the infrastructure level in the cloud stack. Shlomo Swidler from OCCI-WG said that the final version is expected to be ready in early 2011. However, the technologies are evolving at a super fast pace. For instance, Amazon announced the new hibernate feature in EC2 while the conference was in progress (according to Alistair Croll, this single feature will change the whole economics of cloud computing). For obvious reasons, Amazon does not contribute to the standards initiatives—and therefore Reuven Cohen wonders whether the traditional standard-making procedures are becoming irrelevant.

Another related activity is the Simple Cloud API - an initiative started in September 2009 by Zend Technologies. According to Shahar Evron from Zend, it is meant to make life easy for developers, who would write their programs against one common API and the underlying framework will translate the calls to a specific service provider (for example, Amazon SQS or Microsoft Azure). The work is focused now on StorageAPI, QueueAPI and DocumentAPI.

Public versus private clouds was another greatly discussed subject. As Hal Stern put it, a private cloud is just a more efficient data center. That’s what some of the large companies want to achieve. For example, IBM has turned its entire IT infrastructure into a private cloud, and it was so successful that now they’re actually selling the technology. Yosi Schneck, CEO of Israel Electricity Company, even thinks that in 10 years, most of the enterprises will, by necessity, become cloud providers. According to Tal Haramati, Israel Government CIO, the IT infrastructure of the educational system in Israel will become a private cloud in the near future. Dr. Robert Marcus, a leading expert in the subject from NCOIC.ORG, talked about various cloud initiatives of the U.S. government; among them a hybrid public/private cloud which NASA is building for research, duly named “Nebula.” Dr. Lee Hing-Yan from the National Grid Office of Singapore told us about similar projects lead by the government of that country.

Another interesting talk was about Erlang, a functional programming language invented initially for telecom switches. The language has several features like scalability and fault-tolerance which make it very attractive for large-scale web programming. The main example is that Facebook Chat is written in Erlang.

Cloud Camp

A somewhat unconventional event, called CloudCamp, took place in the evening of the first day. It was organized by Reuven Cohen, a colorful personality and an evangelist of cloud technologies, who actually helped to craft the NIST definition of cloud computing and saw the era coming pretty much before everybody else. One participant described CloudCamp to me like this: “You put a bunch of smart people in a room and let them talk. Something interesting will surely come out.” That’s indeed the idea of the so-called unconferences, which are highly scalable meetings without any predefined agenda and format. The only requirement is that you should be really passionate about the subject. There have been CloudCamps in 50 cities with around 20,000 participants overall, and the Israeli version turned out to be very stimulating and thought-provoking.

Interestingly, the entire World Summit was largely ignored by the academic community. Cohen thinks that it may be just that “Grid failed because it was driven by the academia. CC succeeded because it is driven by the industry.” Still, the need of collaboration seems to be well-acknowledged among the industry leaders. In particular, Steve Rubinow, CIO of the New York Stock Exchange, is trying to bridge the gap. He told me that he holds regular discussions with people from academia, and the MIT folks actually discovered some security flaws in EC2. He thinks that the main research challenges facing the cloud industry are how to generally reduce the communication latency and how to manage complex environments. IBM’s Ric Telford mentioned that IBM is constantly running lots of joint projects with universities. And Hal Stern is convinced that the CC era will pose major challenges for computer science.

Which brings us to the culmination of the conference. At the closing talk of IGT 2009, named “ubiquitous computing,” Alistair Croll and Dr. Marcus each presented their prognosis of the evolution of CC during the next several years. The big question is what will be the future “platform as a service,” and there is going to be a really serious battle for domination. In the coming years there are predicted to emerge two or three major PaaS providers. The products will be evaluated based on their ability to integrate with other technologies—in particular mobile devices.

In the meantime, applications for the cloud will need to be modeled in a “provider-independent” manner. In the era of the “Global World Grid,” the developers will become, more and more, system integrators. New kinds of applications will emerge (although nobody has a clue what exactly they will look like).

All of this looks very exciting. On the other hand, as computing becomes a commodity, governments will need to interfere much more than they do today. They will have to impose standards and legislate laws to keep up with the changing world.

The whole conference really made we wonder whether “ubiquitous computing” is going to be just the next buzzword, or that we are indeed witnessing a profound change in the human civilization.