Cloud management tools guide for beginners

Get a better understanding of the major players in cloud infrastructure management and provisioning, including RightScale, Kaavo, Zeus and Scalr.

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Cloud management is a hot topic, so hot that every startup and established vendor has some form of tool for managing cloud computing environments. There are tools that monitor, tools that provision, and tools that cross the divide between both. Then there's just vaporware, and sorting through that can be a challenge.

If your cloud deployment is fairly static or not mission-critical, then you may not need a dynamic provisioning system. In that case, the standard tools for resource adds/changes/removals included with the product may suffice.

For an updated look at the issues affecting cloud developers, check out our cloud testing and development resources page.

Several providers have products designed for cloud computing management (VMware, OpenQRM, CloudKick, and Managed Methods), along with the big players like BMC, HP, IBM Tivoli and CA. Each uses a variety of methods to warn of impending problems or send up the red flag when a sudden problem occurs. Each also tracks performance trends.

Understanding cloud computing:

If you are still iffy on the concept of cloud computing, this definition provides illumination on the distinct characteristics of cloud.

While they all have features that differentiate them from each other, they're also focused on one key concept: providing information about cloud computing systems. If your needs run into provisioning, the choices become more distinct than choosing "agent vs. agentless" or "SNMP vs. WBEM."

The main cloud infrastructure management products offer similar core features:

  • Most support different cloud types (often referred to as hybrid clouds).
  • Most support the on-the-fly creation and provisioning of new objects and the destruction of unnecessary objects, like servers, storage, and/or apps.
  • Most provide the usual suite of reports on status (uptime, response time, quota use, etc.) and have a dashboard that can be drilled into.

When it comes to meeting those three criteria, there are a few vendors that offer pervasive approaches in handling provisioning and managing metrics in hybrid environments: RightScale, Kaavo, Zeus, Scalr and Morph. There are also options offered by cloud vendors themselves that meet the second and third criteria, such as CloudWatch from Amazon Web Services.

The large companies known for their traditional data center monitoring applications have been slow to hit the cloud market, and what products they do have are rehashes of existing applications that do little in the way of providing more than reporting and alerting tools. CA is on an acquisition spree to fix this and just acquired 3Tera, a cloud provisioning player.

An example of the confusion in the industry is IBM's Tivoli product page for cloud computing. You'll notice that clicking the Getting Started tab results in a 404 error. Nice work, IBM.

Meanwhile, HP's OpenView (now called Operations Manager) can manage cloud-based servers, but only insofar as it can manage any other server. BMC is working on a cloud management tool, but doesn't have anything beyond its normal products out at the moment.

More on cloud management:

Cloud computing management overview

How to manage and monitor the cloud

Pricing and licensing for cloud management tools

Cloud service management and cloud monitoring for providers

In place of these behemoths, secondary players making splashes on the market are offering monitoring-focused applications from companies like Scout, UpTime Systems, Cloudkick, NetIQ and ScienceLogic. There is also the "app formerly known as" Hyperic, now owned by VMware through the acquisition of SpringSource.

In truth, we could rival John Steinbeck and Robert Jordan in word count when it comes to writing about all the products in this field, though within a year or two it should be a much smaller space as acquisitions occur, companies fail and the market sorts itself out. There's a lot on the way in cloud computing, not the least of which is specifications. Right now the cloud is the Wild West: vast, underpopulated, and lacking order except for a few spots of light.

These are the best infrastructure management and provisioning options available today:

RightScale

RightScale is the big boy on the block right now. Like many vendors in the nascent market, they offer a free edition with limitations on features and capacity, designed to introduce you to the product (and maybe get you hooked, ala K.C. Gillette's famous business model at the turn of the 20th century). RightScale's product is broken down into four components:

  • Cloud Management Environment
  • Cloud-Ready ServerTemplate and Best Practice Deployment Library
  • Adaptable Automation Engine
  • Multi-Cloud Engine

A fifth feature states that the "Readily Extensible Platform supports programmatic access to the functionality of the RightScale Platform." In looking at the product, these features aren't really separate from one another, but make a nice, integrated offering.

RightScale's management environment is the main interface users will have with the software. It is designed to walk a user through the initial process of migrating to the cloud using their templates and library. The management environment is then used for (surprise!) managing that environment, namely continuing builds and ensuring resource availability. This is where the automation engine comes into play: being able to quickly provision and put into operation additional capacity, or remove that excess capacity, as needed. Lastly, there is the Multi-Cloud Engine, supporting Amazon, GoGrid, Eucalyptus and Rackspace.

RightScale is also working on supporting the Chef open-source systems integration specifications, as well. Chef is designed from the ground up for the cloud.

Kaavo

Kaavo plays in a very similar space to RightScale. The product is typically used for:

  • Single-click deployment of complex multi-tier applications in the cloud (Dev, QA, Prod)
  • Handling demand bursts/variations by automatically adding/removing resources
  • Run-time management of application infrastructure in the cloud
  • Encryption of persisted data in the cloud
  • Automation of workflows to handle run-time production exceptions without human intervention

The core of Kaavo's product is called IMOD. IMOD handles configuration, provisioning and changes (adjustments in their terminology) to the cloud environment, and across multiple vendors in a hybrid model. Like all major CIM players, Kaavo's IMOD sits at the "top" of the stack, managing the infrastructure and application layers.

One great feature in IMOD is its multi-cloud, single system tool. For instance, you can create a database backend in Rackspace while putting your presentation servers on Amazon. Supporting Amazon and Rackspace in the public space and Eucalyptus in the private space is a strong selling point, though it should be noted that most cloud management can support Eucalyptus if it can also support Amazon, as Eucalyptus mimics Amazon EC2 very closely.

Both Kaavo and RightScale offer scheduled "ramp-ups" or "ramp-downs" (dynamic allocation based on demand) and monitoring tools to ensure that information and internal metrics (like SLAs) are transparently available. The dynamic allocation even helps meet the demands of those SLAs. Both offer the ability to keep templates as well to ease the deployment of multi-tier systems.

Zeus

Zeus was famous for its rock-solid Web server, one that didn't have a lot of market share but did have a lot of fanatical fans and top-tier customers. With Apache, and to a lesser-extent, IIS, dominating that market, not to mention the glut of load balancers out there, Zeus took its expertise in the application server space and came up with the Application Delivery Controller piece of the Zeus Traffic Controller. It uses traditional load balancing tools to test availability and then spontaneously generate or destroy additional instances in the cloud, providing on-the-fly provisioning. Zeus currently supports this on the Rackspace and, to a lesser extent, Amazon platforms.

Scalr

Scalr is a young project hosted on Google Code and Scalr.net that creates dynamic clusters, similar to Kaavo and RightScale, on the Amazon platform. It supports triggered upsizing and downsizing based on traffic demands, snapshots (which can be shared, incidentally, a very cool feature), and the custom building of images for each server or server-type, also similar to RightScale. Being a new release, Scalr does not support the wide number of platforms, operating systems, applications, and databases that the largest competitors do, sticking to the traditional expanded-LAMP architecture (LAMP plus Ruby, Tomcat, etc.) that comprises many content systems.

Morph

While not a true management platform, the MSP-minded Morph products offers similar functionality in its own private space. Morph CloudServer is a newer product on the market, filling the management and provisioning space as an appliance. It is aimed at the enterprise seeking to deploy a private cloud. Its top-tier product, the Morph CloudServer is based on the IBM BladeCenter, and supports hundreds of virtual machines.

Under the core is an Ubuntu Linux operating system and the Eucalyptus cloud computing platform. Aimed at the managed service provider market, Morph allows for the creation of private clouds and the dynamic provisioning within those closed clouds. While still up-and-coming, Morph has made quite a splash and bears watching, particularly because of its open-source roots and participation in open-cloud organizations.

CloudWatch

Amazon's CloudWatch works on Amazon's platform only, which limits its overall usefulness as it cannot be a hybrid cloud management tool. Since Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) is the biggest platform out there (though Rackspace claims it is closing that gap quickly), it still bears mentioning.

CloudWatch for EC2 supports dynamic provisioning (called auto-scaling), monitoring, and load-balancing, all managed through a central management console -- the same central management console used by Amazon Web Services. Its biggest advantage is that it requires no additional software to install and no additional website to access applications through. While the product is clearly not for enterprises that need hybrid support, those that exclusively use Amazon should know that it is as robust and functional as the other market players.

Conclusion

With the plethora of tools on the market, it is important that data center managers begin their assessments early and keep an eye on how the market progresses. This change in the very nature of IT infrastructure is both vast and fast, necessitating the constant revision of plans and review of products, as well as observation of what is happening to each of the companies behind these products. It is clear that RightScale has the early lead, but the other vendors are catching up quickly and bear close watching.

Click here for an updated look at cloud management tools and platforms.

Joseph Foran is the director of IT at FSW, a Bridgeport, Conn., a nonprofit social-services agency.

This was first published in March 2010

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