Review: 4 Java clouds face off

CloudBees, Google App Engine, Red Hat OpenShift, and VMware Cloud Foundry reveal the pleasures and perils of coding on a public cloud platform

At the movies, almost every thriller seems to include a moment when a character says, "That was easy ... a bit too easy." Then everything falls apart.

When I set out to test some of the top Java clouds on the marketplace, I found myself repeating this script. The bottom never dropped out on me. Nothing ever stopped working. Nothing fell apart. But time and time again, I kept fretting about how easy it was -- too easy. When the whole thing exploded, where would my Web app be?

Enterprise developers need to be a bit more paranoid about these possibilities than others. The average computer user is thrilled when a new package in the cloud makes life easier. They can embrace cloud-based email, and if the email gets lost, they can just shrug because email always gets lost and can sometimes be a blessing.

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Enterprise developers can't be so sanguine. All of the fancy tools take as well as give. Every slick configuration option that's activated with one push of a button locks us in forever with the same push of the button -- or so it feels to those who worry. If we adapt to the cloud too readily and let it do too much for us, it may not be possible to go anywhere else.

The danger of lock-in seems to lurk around every corner, and that's not necessarily the worst part. What if we're happy with everything about our cloud except we need one missing feature that the cloud's masters either can't or don't want to deliver? The cloud can be a one-size-fits-all world.

If it's any consolation, cloud developers also appear flummoxed by the trade-off. They know customers want one-touch solutions and plenty of automation to make life easier. But it means delivering interfaces that won't be as standard or as flexible as customers would like. The cloud builders must figure out whether the marketplace wants everything done by the cloud or whether customers want to do enough for themselves to avoid lock-in.

To see where things stand, I set up some accounts on four leading Java clouds, built a few toy Java applications, and watched the gauges turn. Even among the four I tried -- Google App Engine, Cloud Foundry, CloudBees, and Red Hat OpenShift -- there is a wide variety of approaches. Some of the clouds rely upon standard tools that take standard WAR files and deliver their information to the world. Others have so many proprietary twists that you might as well tattoo the code on your arm -- it's going to be with you for the rest of your life.

The cloud experiment: Java version

The Java cloud offerings are steadily growing better and more sophisticated, but they're far from a finished set of products. Several of the tools here are perfectly open about their half-baked state. The sign-up forms often insist that we understand the cloud is just a beta application, for development only and not for production work. In fact, it might be more accurate to call the clouds postalpha or prebeta.

Even the more established clouds are constantly shifting because this is all something of an experiment. No one really knows how the loads and the costs will add up, so the prices seem to be changing, sometimes in dramatic ways. The cloud sellers don't really know how their costs will shake out, so they're guessing when they say it costs X dollars for Y million transactions. As the old joke goes, they're losing money on every click but hoping to make it up in volume.

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