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RightScale users get real on cloud pros and cons

Cloud users call out for more monitoring and alerting tools and warn new users to plan for outages; RightScale shares its roadmap.

SANTA CLARA -- In an industry melting down under the weight of vendor hype, RightScale Inc. let its customers do the talking on the benefits and challenges of cloud computing at a user group meeting this week.

RightScale sells software that automates the process of setting up and managing servers on Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Rackspace, among other cloud providers. It claims to have 20,000 users, with over 708,000 servers launched in the cloud, and it is currently spinning up 50,000 instances per day on Amazon EC2 via its software.

Sony Music is one such customer. It is using RightScale to manage its artists' fan sites and e-commerce stores on Rackspace and AWS.

"It's fun the first ten times you do it," said Greg Taylor, senior systems engineer at Sony Music, on using Amazon EC2. "But there is so much detail to it that it becomes impossible."

RightScale enabled Sony to launch four to five Web stores a day in the cloud, a job that would have taken months on a traditional IT architecture and weeks using cloud services without RightScale's management tools, according to Taylor.

Sony's cloud experience wasn't all clear sailing, though. The company is looking for an alternative to the free HAProxy load balancers which apparently require too much ongoing manual configuration. It's considering an option from Zeus Technology, which just announced a new cloud traffic management tool.

The cost of paying RightScale is much cheaper than paying a sys admin.
Michael Dosik, director of operations and QA at FanSnap,
Sony also decided to switch from the cloud provider's payment service to a payment proxy service for PCI compliance. It wanted to be sure it had a scalable and compliant system to support online payment processing. This was put to the test recently when AC/DC released a box set of memorabila inside a guitar amp for $200. Fans went crazy for it, but the proxy payment service held up, Taylor said. He added that the credit card transaction systems at the cloud providers are "not really baked in yet."

Automation instead of staffing
Meanwhile, Michael Dosik, director of operations and QA at FanSnap, a ticket search engine, said he uses RightScale, Amazon S3 and CloudFront for the scalability and flexibility of the environment but also to save budget on staff. "The cost of paying RightScale is much cheaper than paying a sys admin," he noted. RightScale's pricing starts at $500 per month.

Dosik had some advice for new cloud users. Subsystems should be designed to work independently to avoid a "three-mile island effect," he cautioned. "Once one system goes down, it can easily bring down others." Another best practice is to ensure everything is backwards-compatible, as "you always want to be able to roll back to a good state."

His wish list for RightScale and the industry at large is for better cloud monitoring tools. "I can see system level monitoring, but I can't see how each application server is doing … if one application server spins out of control, I won't see it until it's too late," he said.

Brian Lucas, lead architect of Web technology at Sling Media and also a RightScale user, advised cloud users to plan for outages. "Put an intermediate layer in as a buffer, use CDNs or caches, but just plan for failover," he warned.

RightScale's roadmap
RightScale shared some of its roadmap plans with users. It is adding the Chef framework, developed by Opscode, to its Server Templates to ease server transitions between different cloud services.

Chef is a client-server application that allows administrators to script and automate commands across a wide variety of Linux platforms. RightScale will incorporate Chef 'Recipes' that will compensate for servers and applications moving across clouds with different storage and network architectures, loading and unloading necessary software.

"The canonical example is MySQL," said RightScale CTO Thorsten von Eicken. MySQL runs on almost any operating ystsem, he said, but each platform has a specfic file system that MySQL needs to write data to. Using Recipes, a RightScale user could replicate, transfer or span two different cloud services and the Recipe would load in the appropriate configurations.

The Chef framework is in alpha release as of November 3. Eicken said RightScale supports AWS and Rackspace clouds at the moment but will eventually feed the new capabilities into other clouds. There is no charge for the simpler Recipes added to the Server Templates; more advanced Recipes will eventually carry a cost.

Eicken said this server configuration-management framework should make the system administrators' workflow more like a developer's workflow: more repeatable and reliable. He admitted, however, that it adds complexity. "We are still learning how to keep this as simple as we can, so that it's not overwhelming," he said.

The popular notion of tagging has made its way into cloud computing in what RightScale refered to as "machine tags". These will let users attach metadata to objects in RightScale, enabling administrators to run scripts against machines with a certain tag.

Through partners, the company is working on a variance detection product that will spot when a server is launched outside of a sanctioned list of Server Templates, preventing companies from potentially breaking compliance regulations or internal best practices.

Jo Maitland is the Executive Editor at Contact her at

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