Monday, May 11, 2015

The Engineers Cloud

In my previous post in this series I explained the aspect of The Cloud that I like to call The Consumers Cloud. I explained how The Consumers Cloud breaks down into data management services, social media, and streaming media. In this post I'll talk about the second aspect of The Cloud.

The Engineers Cloud

I call this type of Cloud use The Engineers Cloud because this aspect of The Cloud isn't something you as a consumer interact with directly. Instead, engineers are taking advantage of Cloud services to enhance how you interact with their content and services.

What The Cloud Means To Engineers

While there are almost no limits to the things you can do in The Cloud from an engineers perspective, there are two main areas I'd like to focus on here. The first is as means of distributed computing. The second is better reliability of their services.

Distributed Computing

The Engineers Cloud allows you to take advantage of the virtual limitlessness of server resources in The Cloud. In the days before The Cloud server resources were finite. You only had the amount of resources you could afford to keep running all the time. These resources lived in data centers.

Companies like Facebook, Netflix, Amazon, and Google use The Cloud to do a variety of tasks that would be nearly impossible with a fixed set of resources. The ability to spin up an (almost) unlimited amount of servers running your services means that you can parallelize computing to a degree that was not possible a decade ago.

Some examples of engineers using The Cloud as a means of distributed computing:

  • NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) uses the cloud to capture and store images and metadata collected from the Mars Exploration Rover and the Mars Science Laboratory missions. They operate the website out of The Cloud without building this infrastructure themselves
  • Accuweather is using the cloud to serve over 4 billion requests a day.
  • Evite is using the cloud to send more than 250 million party invitations each year.
  • Netflix is using the cloud to stream videos to it's online streaming customers. It's able to take advantage of The Cloud's distributing computing to analyze a very large amount of data and turn them into recommendations and personalization.

Better Reliability

This is going to sound counter intuitive, but one of the reasons that The Cloud is more reliable is that when planning to put your software and services in The Cloud you have to plan for failure. The best example of this in practice that I'm aware of is Netflix's Simian Army.

The Cloud allows you to plan for failure and provide better reliability because it allows for:
  • Redundency through geo-distributing services.
  • Redundency through clustering your services.
  • Reduced latency through DNS services.

Redundency through geo-distributing services

Most Cloud providers offer the ability to deploy your software and services to many different regions around the world. This allows you to keep your software and services running even if there are data center outages in a specific region like the Northeast blackout of 2003 by having your services fallback from one geo-graphic region to another if the initial region is down.

Redundancy through clustering your services

Most Cloud providers give you the ability to cluster your services behind some sort of virtual load balancer. Most of these load balancers will automatically stop sending traffic to a machine that is not responding or throwing a particular error for a predefined URL on the machine.

While clustering your services behind a load balancer allows you to remove or replace a machine that isn't functioning properly it also is the primary means by which you can quickly scale up your service to meet demand. If your service is experiencing a higher than expected load you can spin up a new server in your cluster and scale proportionally with your traffic. 

Reduced latency through DNS services

DNS is how the internet turns the name of service we go to into the address that the service resides at. For example when you type into your browser your computer is doing a DNS lookup of and being given an IP address. It then uses that IP address to talk directly with the service.

Many Cloud providers allow you to virtually control DNS based on characteristics of the request. Some services allow you to route traffic based on latency to or load on the receiving services. This allows you to distribute your traffic more evenly and provide a better customer experience. Instead of simply pointing your users at a specific machine, you can point them to different machines based on the current state of your system and what gives the users a great experience.

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