Brent Ozar and Kevin Kline on the Future of Cloud Computing

Despite the fact that few people in the SQL Server community appear to be using, or even testing, cloud computing in their environments, it was a main focus of the TechEd 2010 keynote, and the topic seemed to pop up in many of the discussions I had with readers and authors at the conference. So I met up with Kevin Kline, strategy manager for SQL Server at Quest Software, and Brent Ozar, a SQL Server DBA expert for Quest Software, to hear what they had to say about current cloud adoption, how cloud computing will affect SQL Server DBAs and developers, and their predictions on the future of cloud computing. (To see what Kevin and Brent had to say about other topics, such as virtualization, SQL Server 2008 R2, and NoSQL, watch for the rest of this series on the Database Administration blog.)

Megan Keller: Another big trend that we are hearing a lot about at this conference is cloud computing. People aren’t necessarily adopting, but they’re talking about adopting. They’re talking about the requirements—what do they need—and their concerns. Do you know anyone who is using cloud computing?

Brent Ozar: It’s one of those deals where I think people saw how rapidly virtualization got adopted when the bugs were ironed out. It really caught everybody by surprise when originally the hard-core shops went in, adopted it, and went under extreme pain when they chose to adopt those things early, but now everybody’s doing it and they’re seeing extreme cost benefits improvements there. Cloud, I think people look at that and say, “I bet that this is the next virtualization and it’s not ready yet, but I want to be one of the people who is there when it is ready. If it saves as much money as virtualization did, I want to be right there because I’m under so much cost pressure.” I don’t know anybody who’s moved stuff from on-premises to the cloud, but I know a lot of developers who say, “I want to build something, but I don’t have an enterprise behind me, what’s the easiest way to get started?”

Zynga Games, the guys who do Farmville, just published a big white paper on how they were able to scale with the cloud. They did everything through Amazon EC2, and they did it in the very beginning of their deployment. They said “I bet we’re going to have 200,000 users a week. We should probably build something that can scale quickly.” Well as it turned out, they were adding 10 million customers a week and they said, “Thank god we made the decision to go with the cloud initially.” And it’s the developers that have no idea what they are going to build, who have no money behind them, who are able to make those kinds of decisions. But the people that we usually talk to at shows like TechEd aren’t really the target market yet. I think Microsoft is making brilliant decisions with Visual Studio to say, “We’re going to put it in your hands. Slap out the credit card whenever you’re ready to scale, we’ve got the tools right here at your disposal if you want to go play with something like that.”

Keller: Do you think many people just don’t yet understand the potential use cases for the cloud?

Ozar: No, DBAs will never like it. It’s much like virtualization—DBAs never wanted virtualization. They got it shoved down their throats by CIOs. This is the same thing, except it’s going to be shoved down their throats by developers. The developers will say, “If you don’t want to do this, I’m going to take my credit card and just go build the thing on my own,” just like CIOs said, “I don’t care whether you want to do this, I’m going to start with my file and print servers, and by the time it’s home, we’re going to use it here whether you like it or not.” DBAs were kind of strong armed into it.

Kevin Kline: I think there is an element to it as well that it’s still not mature enough to assuage the fears of the DBA. In many situations the DBA is the risk mitigator; their job is to minimize risk. And there is an awful lot of risk with cloud right now if you were to put production data on the cloud. The cloud is not really that secure; it’s not secure enough. In addition, if you’re a publicly traded company, it’s very difficult to keep auditing requirements in alignment so that all of the auditors would be satisfied. Right now the way the cloud is architected, at least from Microsoft, is that it’s really not tuned toward high levels of transaction processing. The disk space that you get has been limited, and it hasn’t been a factor of “Well, we just don’t have enough disks.” They’ve got lots of disks; it’s that the disks are laid out for volume, not for high transaction performance. So, if performance is part of your issue, too, of course you could scale out, but you would have to acquire and pay for that many more resources. There’s certain aspects of what the DBAs are risk adverse to that are on the radar of Microsoft, and they know that they are going to solve that soon, but not today. So once they have that solved, they will have an answer for those DBAs who are saying “Whoa, let’s put the brakes on this for a little bit.” So it’s coming. And if a lot of DBAs are like “I’m not sure if I want to do that or not,” as Brent said, they will have to. You cannot get away from the ROI of this situation. The value proposition is unassailable. It’s on other issues that DBAs are currently able to push back on; security, transactional consistency. So once those are solved—and it will just be around the corner—then it’s going to be happening very rapidly. Virtualization has already proved that case for us, and as Brent said, people are lining up. They’re like, “We’ve learned our lessons from history. We’re ready to go with the next round as soon as it’s ready.”

Ozar: If we’d gone back ten years ago, or even five years ago, and said “Who’s going to be the big player in virtualization?” even if we knew it was going to be big, I don’t think anybody would have picked VMware. There were all kinds of little options that were out there. Today, I did an article on NoSQL for SQL Server administrators, and in the 48 hours before the article came out, three NoSQL databases came out—two of them with venture capital funding. How are we going to predict the one who’s really going to win? And it’s going to be elements that are right now beyond our control and beyond our knowledge. So there has to be somebody to win before we can all really go off to the cloud.

Kline: That’s a great point, and I’ll tell you this is one area where I think Microsoft has a definite advantage. The key thing here is that all these other players that are so strong in this space—Amazon, Google—they do not have a really good offering for two situations: The first is say we decided to deploy on Google. If we asked for support, we are one of millions of cloud users at Google. We are not an enterprise customer—Google doesn’t do a good job of differentiating Fortune 50 from the T-shirt shop on the beach. Microsoft does that perfectly. They have great support, EAs, SAs, the top level support kinds of agreements—TAMs for their best customers—that’s one very strong advantage. The other one I think that may enable Microsoft to rise to the top is they are better poised than anybody else to straddle the on-premises and off-premises, so you can have a hybrid cloud. Here’s the stuff that we are not going to take outside. Well then why would we want to use someone else who doesn’t integrate so well with all of our Microsoft stack content, or infrastructure I should say, that is inside the company? We know we can’t let those things out, so if we’re going to go into the cloud for cost savings in other areas, why don’t we go with Microsoft because it is a pure play. It’s very strong, one throat to strangle if we have an issue, but also Microsoft has shown again and again when it first rolled out SQL Server the integration with Windows NT was second to none. So we got the same kind of situation here with SQL Azure.

Ozar: And the Visual Studio tooling, too.

Kline: Exactly, and when you win the developers’ hearts, you’re 90 percent of the way there.

Ozar: And when you make it so easy inside Visual Studio that you can just right-click and start. Okay, I want to explore SQL Azure and start trying to deploy there; they’ve won by default if somebody’s using Visual Studio. The cloud tooling is so bad right now for other vendors, which is why we’re [Quest Software] bringing out Toad for Cloud [Databases]. It’s the same as when Oracle came out with Oracle, they didn’t have the best tooling, so we stepped in and had great developer and DBA tooling. All these cloud database platforms; they’re struggling to develop their database, let alone the tools.

Keller: I’m actually surprised there aren’t more third-party products available that are meant to be used with established cloud platforms.

Ozar: Not everybody can afford to do it. We’re lucky enough that we’ve established the Toad infrastructure. We’ve got this where we can already build it for Oracle, DB2, My SQL, and SQL Server, so it’s relatively easy for us to plug in support for other cloud providers and give people the same user interface. You already know how Toad works; now you can go play with other back ends without a huge learning curve.

Kline: And we’ve also extended it into virtualization space. So with our monitoring and management tools, you can see on your SQL Server, for example, how much overhead the VM is consuming. That way, the DBA can quickly assess whether the VM is part of the trouble that he is trying to troubleshoot.

Ozar: And Azure.

Kline: And Azure, exactly. So Azure is part of those monitoring tools as well. And again, we give you the whole stack, so you can have on-premises and be up in the cloud at the same time and you can have alerting, monitoring, troubleshooting.

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