12.03.2012

Don’t Just Move your Data-Center (Part I)

A couple of weeks ago I gave a cool little web presentation (I say cool because I like doing those decently more than I like sitting at my desk, and I say little because I went for 33 minutes, and I know I could have gone for 90…) about cloud security best practices and design principles (I will be giving this talk again, BTW, on January 9th for the Amazon Web Services Ecosystem) and I got a pretty good question from one of the viewers. They wanted to know “what mistakes do people make when they utilize cloud based infrastructure providers?” and I thought that was an excellent question, and since not all of you were there to hear my answer, I’m here to share it, and expound on it a little bit.

In my opinion, the biggest mistake you can make in adopting Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) providers is to just move your data-center into the cloud wholesale in basically the same shape it is already in.

Now, certainly I understand this temptation! You have probably spent a lot of time creating scripts and setting up access controls and logging mechanisms, and everything that comes with building your deployment in a traditional (what I call ‘data-center-centric’) way. And so it may seem that the best, fastest, easiest and cheapest thing to do is to simply pick it up and move it, as it were, to your new “hosting provider”, but this approach may well leave you missing out on some of the best reasons to run in the cloud.

IaaS providers, such as Amazon Web Services, offer a multitude of services and features that can vastly improve your operational efficiency, scalability, and security, but they must be properly leveraged. Cloud computing, while similar in some respects to hosting, is an entirely different paradigm, and in order to take full advantage of it’s benefits, some time and care needs to be taken in the design phase of such a project.

I like to compare the differences in cloud versus data-center configurations in terms of two types of gambling/entertainment most of you will be familiar with- playing Three Card Monte on the street (your data-center) and going to gamble in a major casino (the cloud).

In a Three Card Monte scenario, the ‘house’ makes its money by keeping a tight level of control over the game. They know exactly which card the token is under at all times, they can palm or move the token at will, and they will have one or more shills in the audience to help them control the crowd’s reactions. This can be a very profitable endeavor for the ‘house’, but it is not scalable to large crowds, multiple dealers, or to environments where there is a high degree of scrutiny.

In contrast, a casino is designed to achieve the same ends (to take your money and provide some entertainment in the process) but does so in a very different way. The casino relies on statistics in order to win over any given day. The casino can’t control (due to regulators) which slot machines will pay out exactly how much exactly when, nor can they control which blackjack dealers will have good or bad nights, and they cannot ‘fix’ the roulette wheel, but yet- the house always wins. This model is scaleable to large crowds, multiple dealers and games, and even high degrees of scrutiny. It is through exercising control at a higher level and giving up control at the lower level that they are able to achieve this scalability and profitability.

It works the same in the cloud. Rather than having precise control over your hardware and network connections, you exercise control at the design level by creating feedback loops, auto-scaling triggers and by catching and reacting to exceptions. This allows you, much the same as the casino, to give up control over many of the details, and still ensure you always win at the end of the day.

So just as it would be impractical to set up a Three Card Monte table in a modern casino, simply hauling your existing design into the cloud is not the best approach. Take the time to re-design your system to utilize all of the great advantages that IaaS providers such as Amazon provide.

Tune in later fo Part II.

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