Cloud Computing = Elasticity * Availability

What is cloud computing? Is hosting the same thing as cloud computing? Are you running a cloud if you already use virtual machines? What is the difference between Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) and a cloud provider? And the list goes on… these questions keep coming up and all try to fundamentally explain what “cloud” means relative to other concepts. At the risk of over simplification, answering these questions becomes simpler once you understand the primary foundations of cloud computing: Elasticity and Availability.
The basic value proposition of cloud computing is to pay as you go, and to pay for what you use. This implies that an application can expand and contract on demand, across all its tiers (presentation layer, services, database, security…).  This also implies that application components can grow independently from each other. So if you need more storage for your database, you should be able to grow that tier without affecting, reconfiguring or changing the other tiers. Basically, cloud applications behave like a sponge; when you add water to a sponge, it grows in size; in the application world, the more customers you add, the more it grows. Pure IaaS providers will provide certain benefits, specifically in terms of operating costs, but an IaaS provider will not help you in making your applications elastic; neither will Virtual Machines. The smallest elasticity unit of an IaaS provider and a Virtual Machine environment is a server (physical or virtual). While adding servers in a datacenter helps in achieving scale, it is hardly enough. The application has yet to use this hardware.  If the process of adding computing resources is not transparent to the application, the application is not elastic.
As you can see from the above description, designing for the cloud is not about more servers; it is about designing an application for elasticity regardless of the underlying server farm.
The fact of the matter is that making applications highly available is hard. It requires highly specialized tools and trained staff. On top of it, it's expensive. Many companies are required to run multiple data centers due to high availability requirements. In some organizations, some data centers are simply on standby, waiting to be used in a case of a failover. Other organizations are able to achieve a certain level of success with active/active data centers, in which all available data centers serve incoming user requests. While achieving high availability for services is relatively simple, establishing a highly available database farm is far more complex. In fact it is so complex that many companies establish yearly tests to validate failover procedures.
To a certain degree certain IaaS provides can assist with complex disaster recovery planning and setting up data centers that can achieve successful failover. However the burden is still on the corporation to manage and maintain such an environment, including regular hardware and software upgrades. Cloud computing on the other hand removes most of the disaster recovery requirements by hiding many of the underlying complexities.
Cloud Providers
A cloud provider is an infrastructure provider offering additional tools to achieve application elasticity and availability that are not usually available on-premise. For example Microsoft Azure provides a simple configuration screen that makes it possible to run 1 or 100 web sites by clicking a button or two on a screen (simplifying provisioning), and soon SQL Azure will offer Data Federation to allow database sharding (which allows you to scale the database tier seamlessly and automatically). Other cloud providers offer certain features that are not available on-premise as well, such as the Amazon SC3 (Simple Storage Service) which gives you virtually unlimited storage capabilities for simple data stores, which is somewhat equivalent to the Microsoft Azure Table offering (offering a server-independent data storage model). Unlike IaaS providers, cloud providers give you the necessary tools to adopt elasticity as part of your application architecture. 
Some cloud providers offer built-in high availability that get you out of the business of configuring clustered solutions, or running multiple data centers. Some cloud providers will give you more control (which puts some of that burden back on the customers' shoulder) and others will tend to make high availability totally transparent. For example, SQL Azure provides high availability automatically which would be very difficult to achieve (and very costly) on premise.
Keep in mind that each cloud provider has its strengths and weaknesses; some are better at achieving transparent scalability and server independence than others. 
Not for Everyone
Note however that it is up to you to leverage the elasticity capabilities of a cloud provider, as discussed previously; if you build a website that does not need to scale, for which elasticity is not important, then you can use a traditional host provider unless you also need high availability. Leveraging the technologies of cloud providers can be difficult and can become a journey for companies that build their solutions in a scale up fashion. Cloud computing promises to address cost containment and scalability of applications with built-in high availability. If your application does not need to scale or you do not need high availability, then cloud computing may not be for you. In fact, you may pay a premium to run your applications with cloud providers due to the underlying technologies built specifically for scalability and availability requirements. And as such, the cloud is not for everyone.
Consistent Customer Experience, Predictable Cost
With all its complexities, buzz and foggy definition, cloud computing boils down to a simple objective: consistent customer experience at a predictable cost.  The objective of a cloud solution is to provide the same user experience to your last customer than the first, while keeping your operating costs directly proportional to the number of customers you have. Making your applications elastic and highly available across all its tiers, with as much automation as possible, achieves the first objective of a consistent customer experience. And the ability to expand and contract the infrastructure footprint of your application dynamically achieves the cost containment objectives.
Herve Roggero is a SQL Azure MVP and co-author of Pro SQL Azure (APress).  He is the co-founder of Blue Syntax Consulting (, a company focusing on cloud computing technologies helping customers understand and adopt cloud computing technologies. For more information contact herve at hroggero @ .


Print | posted @ Sunday, March 13, 2011 2:56 PM

Comments on this entry:

Gravatar # re: Cloud Computing = Elasticity * Availability
by Wayne Magnum at 3/31/2011 1:37 AM


Nice and clearly defined post. It really clear things up when talking about general Cloud Computing.

-Wayne Magnum
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