Instant Gratification – The End of Server Admins?

02/28/2012 08:52 pm

I am convinced that over the next few years we will see the end of server admins and, to an extent, developers. If you take into account investment in new projects, time to turn around current projects, and peoples’ unwillingness to throw away what they have invested time and money in, it looks like the shift will be in around five years.

In a little departure from my normal posts, I want to talk about PaaS and how we’ll all be out of a job.

A little while ago, I was at work and got an email linking to Standing Cloud, who have taken what several cloud providers offer and wrapped it up in a platform – well, actually, lots of platforms.

You can run on AWS, Rackspace, GoGrid, and several other cloud hosting providers, but the nice thing about their platform is you fire up preconfigured instances set up with any one of a wide range of open source apps on around 10 cloud providers – and you need no technical knowledge to do so.

The march of infrastructure and provisioning toward the user is exactly where Standing Cloud is taking us. Instead of the tedious provision of instances via the IT department or through the person who owns the AWS account, the end user with almost no technical knowledge can fire up an instance and get to work within minutes.

Choose the last five project that annoyed you because they were distractions from what you really wanted to do. Someone wants a WordPress site. Someone else needs a test build of Magento. SugarCRM is being looked at by the Marketing Department and the Marketing Director wants to review it.

Instead of this setup time going to the devops team (which is what we all are now, even if just a little bit), marketing directors can spin up instances themselves. Now, your marketing director might not feel comfortable doing this right now, but soon it’ll feel like signing up for any other site.

And that’s what Standing Cloud feels like to me.

To get started, sign in with your Google, Yahoo, or Facebook ID, and you’re presented with a list of just over 102 apps.

Launching an app is a matter of selecting it, deciding which cloud to deploy to, then starting it. This is convention over configuration to a high degree; you stick with their convention and while configuration is available, you might as well be launching your own instances on EC2.

For example, we have been testing things on a vanilla installation of the Concrete 5 CMS for a prospective client, and instead of installing it manually, we simply start up an instance via Standing Cloud and we’re done. Same goes for Drupal. Instead of going to all the effort of installing something that you might not use or need, you fire up an instance and try it out.

One of my favorites, OpenVBX gives you a cloud-based phone system. Neat.

To get going with OpenVBX, just log in, select start with a test drive before selecting OpenVBX from the apps. Pick a version (a reassuring bit of detail here, so you can see which version works for you).

Next up are the data centers/locations. Because you launch the instance, you confirm all the details and spin it up. This is the kind of thing you could automate, build in Rails in a short time, or just offload onto any other human in your company, saving you time to spend more time on Stack Overflow.

Once it’s running, you wait for it to launch. It’ll appear a few moments later in My Applications with all the usual login data – web login info plus the SSH details.

Having just created your first OpenVBX server, you can start patching calls, linking them up with your API, and generally being productive without the pain of anything at the server level. If you haven’t tried OpenVBX, it works with Twilio and hooks into their service to provide routed calls, voicemail, and interaction with external APIs.

Something for the First-Timer

Installing OpenVBX from source on a server takes maybe 30 minutes if you’re a tech and have a server running or a machine image ready. But that’s not the point and that’s not the case PaaS solves.

With Standing Cloud, all this effort can be delegated to a non-tech in the marketing department, IT procurements, or whoever. They don’t have to wait for you to get around to it. But, for the ever impatient nerd, you can ssh into the instance and get under the hood.

What else does it give you? (Or help you avoid dealing with?)

Aside from deployments from Git and managing backups and recovery (and who doesn’t want to give that up?), you can scale. Scaling is done either in a fairly basic way by resizing the machine or across multiple web heads using load balancers.

To see how they did scaling on AWS and Rackspace doesn’t take long. Standing Cloud enables you to resize instances, and it looks like all they’re doing is calling out to AWS and Rackspace to resize the instances. To resize an instance on AWS, for example, you just stop it, resize it to a bigger or smaller instance type, and start it up again. Standing Cloud provides a wrapper around this with an app to boot.

All this works perfectly for trying out apps and small- and medium-scale hosting, and it would suit a lot of internal apps that IT departments need to provision.

Some apps can be spun up on multitier architecture launched last October and is still in alpha. Their multitier platform can run on nine different cloud providers and run more than 10 applications. To get this running, you configure the web and database tiers, setting the number and size of the nodes you need. All this is pretty easy to configure, with the caveat that it’s easy to spend too much or underspec your machines.

Now for my “and finally” bit …

And Finally

Why does this matter for those of us who love the nuts and bolts and would prefer to configure the servers ourselves? Two big reasons. First, it’s nice to see another architecture described using the practices we know about. Standing Cloud’s site describes their launch sequence as:

  • We start with a clean server image from the cloud provider of your choice. Once the server is active, we run a series of scripts that get the server ready to host one of our 90+ supported applications and platforms. The steps are different depending on which stack the application requires.

This translates to: Keep the image clean and use config management and automated builds to get the software running. Do not fill up your images with anything that’s going to change or isn’t completely generic. The OS and basic requirements are pretty much all your need.

A nice line from the same page gives insight into how your configuration needs to change as your cloud instances change:

  • We then mathematically apply some configuration tweaks to Apache, PHP, and in some cases MySQL based on the size of the server that was allocated.

Read this as: Your config matters, so don’t just throw the same config up everywhere. Memory limits, query cache sizes, and the like need to be configured based on the instance size, memory, and CPU.

This has been a much less technical post. But it’s an important one. Cloud doesn’t mean we nerds get more stuff to play with, it means we get less to do because the provisioning, configuration, and management of apps is moving closer and closer to the person who makes the decision.

Like Heruko, this is PaaS, but this platform is closer to something like SalesForce or Basecamp because it can take no technical knowledge to get the thing going, even if technical knowledge might help expend it.

I can see a day when starting a new CMS or CRM project requires the business owner just to punch in their credit card details to a service’s registration form. From then on, most stuff will be handled for them.

Until then, it’s a race to see who can build it first. And that’s going to be fun.

Imagine what projects you’ve done this year that could be delivered if the CMS, CRM, Blog, or database could be turned on and just delivered to your user. And what does this mean for infrastructure teams and developers?

In the short term, cheat. Use Standing Cloud and similar PaaS systems as shortcuts. In the long term, maybe you can build the PaaS that does your whole job through point and click.

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Dan Frost is Technical Director of, cloud hosting consultants and web developers based in London and Brighton, UK

Dan has been building cloud hosting, writing, and talking about the cloud since before it was trendy. Since he spun up his first AWS instance, he's been trying out new services and finding ways of getting more out of hardware without actually owning any of it.

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