Life in the digital trenches

Where is the Sysadmin in the Brave New World of "Cloud Computing"?

Cloud this, Cloud that. It seems all you hear these days about large scale computing is Cloud. If you believe the marketing droids, you’ll never need to buy another piece of hardware. Just rent it from your friendly neighborhood cloud vendor.

It used to be that if you had a ‘hard’ systems problem to solve, you would call upon your system administrator. They would help you analyze your problem and find bottlenecks. They would find the weak link in your system and propose a solution. They would be able to lead you down the path of the best cost/performance ratio solution. They would help you deploy, troubleshoot, and operate it in your data center.

Working with cloud resources, the sysadmin’s job gets both simpler and more difficult. It becomes simpler because it is easier to plan, provision and decommission systems. All of these tasks are literally the click of a button.

The difficulty lies between the provisioning and decommissioning of the systems. Many of the sysadmins’ traditional tools are no longer available. For example, if there seems to be a problem somewhere between the application and database layer, the sysadmin could focus on the network. What is the topology between these hosts? What’s the bandwidth? Is there packet loss? Is there a capacity problem? What does the traffic look like from a SPAN port in between the hosts? If there was a performance problem with a database, they could look at the SAN for the source of the trouble. I could go on and on with examples.

Without access to traditional tools, sysadmins are somewhat hamstrung. Sometimes the only answer will be, “buy a bigger cloud”.

Don’t get me wrong. I am happy to see bandwidth, storage, and compute resources become commodities. It is good for business to be able to purchase and pay for what you use, when you use it. My concern is that we aren’t as frugal with our virtual resources as we are with our physical resources. It is my opinion that because the cost of entry is so low, we must be more careful when provisioning virtual resources. If we don’t take the time to plan and architect systems properly, cloud computing will likely cost more in the long run.

I think it is the responsibility of today’s sysadmins to make this point to the decision makers in the business. I think it is the responsibility of today’s sysadmins to learn the tools needed to be effective in this pursuit. What are those tools? How can we make those points? I want to explore these questions in future entries.