Thought Leaders in the Cloud: Talking with Chris Auld, CTO at Intergen Limited and Windows Azure MVP

Chris Auld is a Microsoft MVP, the CTO at Intergen Limited and a director of Locum Jobs Startup MedRecruit. Trained as an attorney, Chris chose to pursue a career with emerging technologies instead of practicing law. He is widely known for his evangelical, arm-waving style, as well as for his enthusiasm and drive.

In this interview we discuss:

  • Cloud computing as a business, rather than technological, innovation
  • Scenarios that utilize the cloud’s elastic capabilities
  • The red herring of security vs. the real issue of sovereignty
  • Laws are unlikely to catch up, so hybrid clouds, with things like the Azure appliance, will become the way this is navigated
  • A key challenge in porting apps to the cloud is that their data tier was architected for vertical scaling, and the cloud provides horizontal data scaling
  • The success of the cloud is “just math”, as you’re paying for average usage. With on-premises you’re paying for peak usage
  • Azure stands out as a “platform that is designed to give you the building blocks to build elastic, massive-scale applications”

Robert Duffner: Chris, could you take a moment to introduce yourself?

Chris Auld: I am the Chief Technology Officer at company called Intergen; we’re a reasonably significantly sized Microsoft Gold partner based out of Australia and New Zealand. I’ve got a pretty long background with Microsoft technologies, and most recently, I have been focused quite significantly on the Windows Azure platform.

I’m one of the about 25 Windows Azure MVPs world wide with my particular focus being on Azure Architecture. MVPs are members of the community who have a lot to say about Microsoft technology and who provide support and guidance in the community. I’ve done a significant amount of presenting and training delivery on Windows Azure around the globe.

For example, I’m in New Zealand this week, and I will be in Australia the week after next to do some Azure training courses. Last week, I was at TechEd Europe in Berlin, and at the Oredev Conference in Malmo, Sweden, delivering talks on Windows Azure architecture.

Robert: You’ve said that cloud computing isn’t a technological innovation as much as a business one, and that it’s really a new model to procure computing. Can you expand a little bit about that?

Chris: The architectural patterns and implementation approaches that we take with Windows Azure applications are the same ones we’ve implemented for many, many years. And the thinking around scale out architectures that we’re building today are the same thoughts as those around what I was building back in the ‘dot com’ timeframe with classic ASP.

Where cloud computing is really unique is that it offers a very different way for us to be able to procure computing power. And in particular, to be able to procure computing power on an elastic basis. So there are significant new opportunities that are opened up by virtue of being able to buy very large amounts of computing resources for very short periods of time, for example.

Robert: You’ve also said that the cloud’s unique selling proposition is elasticity. What are some of the scenarios that have highly elastic needs?

Chris: The canonical one that I always use is selling tickets to sporting events. Typically, your website may be selling a handful of tickets each and every day, but when a very popular event goes on sale, you can expect to sell hundreds of thousands of tickets over a time period as short as, say, five to ten minutes. We see similar patterns in other business scenarios as well.

Another good example would be the ability to use the cloud to spin up a super computer for a temporary load. Maybe you’re a mining company or a minerals exploration company, and you get some seismic data that you need to analyze rapidly.

Being able to spin up a super computer for a couple of days and then turn it back off again is really valuable, because it means that you don’t have the cost of carrying all of that capital on your balance sheet when you don’t actually need to use it.

Robert: Background-wise, you come into technology with a law degree. As you look at the cloud, where the technology really is outpacing legislation, how do you think your law background informs the way you view the cloud?

Chris: Some of the legal stuff around the cloud remains somewhat intractable. I obviously do a lot of presenting around this stuff, and I usually start by asking people in the audience how many of them are concerned about cloud security, and it typically is everybody.

I’m not particularly concerned about cloud security, because there’s really nobody I would trust more with my data than a really large, multinational technology company like Microsoft or some of the other major cloud vendors. The more interesting thing, in terms of the legal stuff, is data sovereignty. That’s really thinking about what laws apply when we start working with cloud computing.

If my app is in Singapore, but the Singaporean datacenter is owned by a Belgian company that happens to have a sales office in Reno, what laws apply to my data? What privacy law applies? What competition law applies? What legal jurisdiction applies? Who can get search warrants to look at my data and so forth?

Those are some very hard problems, and in fact, my law degree doesn’t particularly help me solve them. Indeed, the law in general really struggles to answer those sorts of questions at the moment. Those legal and sovereignty questions may be the hardest questions in cloud computing.

Robert: In Switzerland, customer financial information has to reside in the country, and moreover, only Swiss citizens can actually look at that data. So unless you have Swiss citizens in your call centers in Dublin or Mumbai, you start to see challenges.

Chris: That, in some ways, determines who can actually run your data center, who can be operating your servers. Some of those laws can become quite pervasive.

Robert: At some point, that is just going to become technologically untenable. Do you have any thoughts on that? Do you think that eventually there’ll be a lot of pressure to change laws?

Chris: I think there will. Technology is outpacing the law already, and we see it across many areas. For instance, in New Zealand we have things called “name suppression orders,” and there’s a been a whole load of issues with suppression orders. What happens with bloggers? What happens depending on where the data happens to be housed, and so forth?

So technology is massively outpacing the law at the moment. If you think about how we might handle these sorts of complex, multi-jurisdiction, conflict-of-laws kind of issues traditionally; we’d sit up and we’d put together a multilateral treaty or some sort of international treaty.

But of course, in the IT industry, we move at the sort of pace where we’re shipping new functionality every couple of weeks. And specifically, cloud computing vendors are shipping new releases of their technology and platform every few months. An international treaty can take many years to negotiate.

Can you imagine the sorts of negotiations that would need to occur for various jurisdictions around the world to be prepared to cede legal sovereignty for information that might be domiciled within their country? I don’t have any degree of optimism that the law will actually catch up. I think the approach that needs to be taken is this idea of a hybrid approach. You need to have a broad range of options as to what cloud computing means for you.

Cloud computing, for some customers, does mean a true public cloud, with massive-scaled, highly nested workloads. For other customers, it means a private cloud, where they are a large organization, particularly a government entity, and they want to have a private cloud.

For other customers, the cloud’s just not suitable at all, particularly if they need absolute control over their data. One of the benefits of working with some of the Windows Azure stuff that we find is it’s actually pretty easy to work across all of those scenarios.

To take the Microsoft Windows Azure cloud offering as an example, the option is forthcoming to drop something like a Windows Azure appliance which will let youun the same apps I your private cloud as in the public cloud. To me, that’s particularly beneficial for large corporations and federal government, where they may sell it to other government departments.

At the end of the day, we’re working with standard Windows technologies, which we’ve worked with for a long time, but we can pick up and deploy into on-premises environments just as easily.

Robert: That’s a good segue, because we did announce an Azure platform appliance, primarily to give customers an on-premises solution. Where do you think this is going, Chris? Do you think this is just a short-term issue, and that once trust and legal issues are worked out, everything will go to the public cloud? Or do you think customers are always going to need private cloud options?

Chris: I think customers are always going to be interested in private cloud options, particularly in things like the public sector. And I think we need to draw a strong distinction between what is really a true cloud computing offering and what’s really just virtualization in drag. To me, true cloud computing offerings require a pretty significant scale. People who look at the Windows Azure appliance need to know that it’s going to be a large-scale investment and a large-scale deployment.

If you think back to what we discussed at the start, one of the key reasons you want that large scale is because you want to have, effectively, spare computing capacity that you can tap into elastically. By having a large-scale deployment shared by many, many people, the cost to carry that additional capacity is shared across all of those customers. Some of the key scenarios where I see the Windows Azure appliance really working well are things like government.

For example, you may have a national government that chooses to deploy a Windows Azure appliance, and then sells that Windows Azure appliance to other government agencies within that national government. And based on the fact that they are selling it and actually applying a true pricing model and ideally, maybe applying some sort of differential pricing, they can encourage those government agencies to move their load around based on the price.

So if it’s more expensive to run computing workloads during the day than it is at night, you’d expect organizations such as a meteorological office or a big university who want to use the cloud for number crunching to move their loads into off peak time zones.

To me, one of the key things that we need to see from true private clouds is massive scale. And to meet massive scales, at least one order of magnitude larger than the largest elastic workload is my sort of rule of thumb.

You also need to have a suitable pricing system. I think there’d be an internal marketplace in which people would buy that computing power. If you buy a private cloud and then apply that as an overhead charge across all of your departments in your business or government, it’s simply not going to work. Because it’s not going to economically drive a sort of behavior that will optimize your usage of computing.

Robert: That’s a very good point. James Urquhart recently put up a post entitled “Moving to Versus Building for Cloud Computing,” where he says that many applications can’t just be ported over the cloud. That post really holds up Netflix as an organization that’s completely architected around public cloud services. What’s your advice to organizations that have lots of legacy applications on how to be competitive against startups that can fully embrace the cloud from day one?

Chris: Moving to the cloud is very hard, because historically, people have not typically architected their applications for aggressive scale-out scenarios. Typically, people would have thought of scaling out in the application tier. But often, they will not have thought of scaling out in the data tier, and that’s actually something that’s really important to all of the cloud platforms and Windows Azure in particular.

I think organizations that are looking at how they mature their current on-premises set need to really take a hard look at the data tier. And looking at that, they need to ask how they can partition their data tier. How can they get their data tier to enable scale out horizontally, rather than the on-premises approach, which is just buying a bigger SQL server?

When you think about scaling the database tier on premises, you just buy a bigger box. If you think about scaling a database tier in Windows Azure, you really are all about taking SQL Azure and partitioning your database.

So to me, most of the focus needs to be around the data tier for these applications. If people can solve the data tier, it’s going to massively reduce the impact of trying to migrate into one of the clouds.

Robert: From a different perspective, how should startups be looking at cloud computing and the way to enter and disrupt the industry with established players?

Chris: For startups, cloud is as total no-brainer. You’ve basically cloistered yourselves in a Silicon Valley garage and lived on pizza and caffeine for six months building your app. You need to hold onto your equity as tightly as possible, and the last thing you want to do is spend a whole lot of capital on hardware. There are two major reasons.

The first is that, if you’re going to buy all that equipment, you’ve got to go and find some venture capital. And those guys are going to take a pretty penny off you in terms of your equity to give you the money to go and buy the hardware.

The second thing is that lots of startups fail. The last thing you want when you have a failed startup is to be left carrying a whole lot of hardware that you then have to get rid of to recover your cash so you can go and do your next startup. The beauty of the cloud is it’s basically a scale-fast, fail-fast model. So if your startup’s a dog, you can fail fast. It doesn’t cost you the earth, and you don’t have all that hardware hanging around.

If your startup’s a wild success, and you need to add massive amounts of computing power fast, traditional infrastructures can be impossible to scale fast enough to meet the demand- you can’t buy and ship the servers fast enough! That situation can turn your wildly successful startup suddenly into a complete disaster. The beauty of the cloud is that, without paying any capital costs up front, you have an effectively infinite amount of computing capacity that you can turn on as needed.

Robert: In his “Cloudonomics” work, Joe Weinman basically says there’s no way that building on premises for peak usage can compare with pay per use for your average capacity. How much of the cloud adoption you’re seeing is just for cost savings versus business agility? Or even building new kinds of solutions that just wouldn’t be feasible without cloud capabilities?

Chris: “Cloudonomics” is based on the idea that building for the peak loads on premises is too expensive. It’s not merely that we can save money by doing this in the cloud; it’s that we can only do it by building it in the cloud, because it’s just so economically unfeasible to do it on premises.

It is economically unfeasible to carry the hardware you need for those peak loads if you’ve got to have it running 365 days of the year. The cloud allows us at a business level to solve problems that we haven’t been able to solve in the past.

Robert: If you could take your MVP hat off for a second, I imagine that you must have looked at other cloud offerings. You probably have some opinions where you think Azure stands out, and then where other offerings stand out. Can you comment more on that?

Chris: Azure really stands out as a platform-as-a-service offering. The thing that you have to think about with Windows Azure is that you’re not just buying virtual machines. You’re really buying an entire platform that is designed to give you the building blocks to build elastic, massive-scale applications.

Contrast that with something like Amazon’s cloud services offering. Those guys are really mature, and they’ve been doing it a long time. It probably wouldn’t be wrong to call them the market leaders and the innovators. It seems odd for an online bookstore to be the key innovators in cloud computing, but literally I think they just woke up one morning, and said, “Hey we’re really good at building these massive scale websites. Why don’t we put it in a bottle and sell it?”

But Amazon doesn’t really have that platform offering. If we think about building these massive scale applications, they maybe haven’t taken it to the next level, in terms of being willing to build in things like the load balancer, recovery capabilities, and other features that you get with Windows Azure. One real strength of Amazon, though, is that they really get the economic stuff.

Arguably, they’re probably innovating more slowly in terms of technology than they are on the business side of things. Amazon offers things like spot pricing, which I love, because it sends economic price signals to encourage people to change their behavior. At the end of the day, that’s what’s going to drive Green IT: proper economic price signals driving behavior.

Amazon also has reserved instances. These things mean that we can start to look at computing far more like we might look at say, the electricity market. Amazon is really probably the market leader in infrastructure as a service, in the sense of really renting raw capacity by the hour.

Robert: In a recent interview, Accenture’s Jimmy Harris said, “Cloud changes the role of IT, from a purveyor of service, to being an integrator of service.” One potential challenge I see for IT is increased finger pointing. If an organization is accessing its SaaS solution through the Internet, and the SaaS solution is hosted on a public cloud, you could see finger pointing between the ISPs, the SaaS provider, and the cloud provider.

Chris: I’ve been presenting pretty often for audiences like CIOs, and invariably at the end of my presentation, one of them will put up their hand and very boldly ask, “Why then should I trust Microsoft to run my application?” And of course, the answer to that is, there’s probably nobody I’d trust more than Microsoft to run my application. These guys are running enormous data centers, and they have the smartest possible people running them, because the smartest possible people really want to run the enormous data centers.

But I think there’s still a mindset that there are benefits in being able to walk down the hallway and put a boot up someone’s ass if something’s broken. And you kind of lose that with the cloud, and to a degree you also lose some of the high-touch service level agreements that you might see with a typical outsourced provider.

Because to a typical outsource provider, a large enterprise workload is a very significant customer, so they’re often prepared at the sale time to actually enter into detailed negotiations about service level agreements.

When you look at cloud computing, on the other hand, even large enterprise workloads are often just a drop in the ocean for the provider- remember my order of magnitude rule of thumb. But at the end of the day, what really matters is whether your application is up and running. And again, I come back to reinforce the point that these providers run at a massive scale, with very high levels of redundancy and reliability.

There is nobody I would feel more confident in running my technology than a large cloud provider, even though I may not be able to walk down the corridor and kick someone when it stops working.

Robert: Well Chris, thanks for your time.

Chris: Thanks Robert. Always a pleasure.