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Collaboration in the cloud available for developers

Skytap's new interactive service will offer a SharePoint-like level of collaboration on cloud development.

In an attempt to differentiate its more expensive cloud services from the economical offerings of cloud leaders Rackspace and Amazon Web Services (AWS), the Seattle-based test and development provider Skytap released a set of collaboration and cloud management tools for its developer customers. Skytap charges a monthly subscription fee for access to its services.

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The new features combine user administration and computing resources into a specialized dashboard -- developers can share, troubleshoot and make changes to their test environments residing in Skytap's cloud from remote locations simultaneously. So far, the collaboration features are a hit.

"I have a team in Beijing, and I'm located in the Bay Area," said Ron Yun, director of quality assurance (QA) at mortgage software provider Ellie Mae, Inc. That means Beijing is working while he's asleep and vice versa. Using Skytap's latest features, though, has simplified the collaboration process dramatically.

Before subscribing to Skytap in May, Yun followed familiar outsourced development timelines. He had an IT lab, and his Beijing developers had an IT lab. Yun and Beijing would email project developments back and forth, and any significant changes took several days.

It makes it really efficient -- almost a 24-hour operation.
Ron Yun, director of quality assurance at mortgage software provider Ellie Mae, on Skytap's new features,
But through Skytap Projects, he has created a "virtual data center" that he administers and the Beijing programmers interact with, starting and stopping virtual environments to test different platforms for Ellie Mae's software. Yun said the new features let him catch up in real-time and monitor any developments that took place during his off hours.

"I have two people [in Beijing] who are authorized editors," he said. Those privileged users can spin up virtual machines (VMs) to recreate issues while Yun watches from California, and they can even pick up projects where his American team leaves off. This can happen when the pressure is on for a release, he said.

"It makes it really efficient -- almost a 24 hour operation," he said. Yun also said the conveniences of using a service like Skytap outweigh the downsides, which include giving up accountability or transparency. Yun is reasonably sure that Skytap is keeping up with hardware and software upgrades in its Washington state data centers, although he couldn't tell for sure. He called it a 'black box' and said the service has only gone down once, something he's prepared to live with.

Yun's QA needs are simple, he said. He's not particularly concerned about uptime or faultless service; his only real worry is the ability to track what's happening and the early availability of updates and features. He was gratified, for instance, to see Windows 7 was available for testing while it was in early beta, but he can't see his firm using Skytap or any other cloud service for prime-time.

"They're not really set up for production [environments], and I think that's the next big wave," he said. His company is extremely interested in cloud services, Yun said, but not without his IT staff seeing proven reliability.

"Data centers represent a huge, huge cost for the company," he said, but to him, "black boxes" won't cut it for anything but QA or test and development.

Ian Knox, Skytap's senior director of product management, said the company's focus will remain on test and development, training and other environments suitable for short-term use. He said that users wanted more control and more abilities all in one place, but "doing all that securely has been the major feedback from our customers."

The new features are included in subscription costs, Knox said. A base subscription for Skytap reportedly starts at $500 per month and includes 1 terabyte of storage and a set amount of CPU time.

Carl Brooks is the Technology Writer for Contact him at

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