12 hard truths about cloud computing

Performance, security, cost -- here’s what to really expect from the cloud

For the past few months, I've been poking around the various commercial clouds, buying new machines, trying software, and running benchmarks. Well, not exactly buying machines -- just renting them for a few hours and plunking down a few pennies on the barrelhead.

Along the way, I noticed it wasn't working out the way I expected. The machines aren't as interchangeable or as cheap as they seem. Moving to the cloud isn't as simple or as carefree as it's made to be. In other words, the machines weren't living up to their hype. Anyone who's been chugging the Kool-Aid and dreaming that the word "cloud" is a synonym for "perfection" or "pain-free" is going to be sorely disappointed.

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This isn't to say there's no truth to what the cloud companies proclaim, but there are plenty of tricky details that aren't immediately obvious. At their core, the machines aren't miracle workers, just the next generation of what we've been using for years. The improvements are incremental, not revolutionary. If we dial back our hopes and approach the machines with moderated expectations, they're quite nice.

To keep our expectations in check, here is a list of what to really expect from the cloud.

Cloud computing hard truth No. 1: Machine performance isn't uniform
The cloud is meant to abstract away many of the choices that normally go into shopping for a server. You're supposed to push a button, choose your operating system, and get the root password. Everything else is supposed to be handled by the cloud, a nebulous Great Oz that takes care of all those computational chores behind the curtain.

The one thing the benchmarks have taught me is that machines behave quite differently. Even if you buy an instance with the same amount of RAM running the same version of the operating system, you'll find startlingly different performance. There are different chips and different hypervisors running underneath everything. Then the companies can load up their boxes with different numbers of virtual machines.

Cloud computing hard truth No. 2: Too many choices
Sure, many machines pretend to be commodities, but what does it really mean for something to be a high-CPU machine? Then there's the CUDA architecture.

Here, the great promise of the cloud rings true: You can rent something souped-up by the hour and see what it can do. Your boss may not want to give you the money to actually purchase a rack of Nvidia cards to test out the parallel-processing power of the CUDA architecture. A rack of video cards on the purchase order looks like it might support too many time-wasting games of Call of Duty. But a few hours on an Nvidia cloud box is an easy decision for a purchase manager to make.

Expect more complicated hardware as the infatuation with big data grows bigger. Renting out the machines by the hour is an ideal way to get people interested in trying the devices. But with increased choice comes increased complexity and increased uncertainty about what is truly needed.

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