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AWS hybrid cloud management takes expertise and elbow grease

Hybrid cloud challenges can be formidable, but some organizations have tackled them with demonstrable success in AWS and VMware clouds.

Hybrid cloud management between VMware and AWS environments can be tricky, but it is doable thanks to customizable...

tools and platforms.

That's the story from two IT shops which have achieved equilibrium between private clouds built on VMware and Amazon Web Services (AWS) public clouds: FlightStats Inc., a global data service company in the aviation space, located in Portland, Ore., and Getty Images Inc., a Seattle-based visual communications company.

Putting hybrid cloud management to the test

If you do a Google search to check the status of a commercial airline flight, chances are the data that is returned comes from FlightStats, a 12-year-old company that supplies data it crunches from over 190 countries to customers ranging from mobile app developers to the airlines themselves.

"We have a multitude of technical problems to solve and they're not all best solved just in AWS, and they're not all best solved in our own data center," said Alex Witherspoon, vice president of platform engineering for FlightStats. "We're transacting so many data points so quickly, it actually runs fast enough that we burn out [solid-state drives]."

Yet, each of those individual transactions -- occurring at a rate of about a billion per day, Witherspoon estimated -- can be monitored and evaluated by a system of tools the IT team has put together.

What allows transactions to be monitored so closely across multiple environments is a software as a service application performance management (APM) tool from New Relic Inc., along with New Relic Insights, which offers real-time analytics on monitoring data.

"With New Relic APM, we were able to deploy to any cloud we went into, and we did [the same] monitoring in all of those locations," Witherspoon said.

With New Relic Insights, FlightStats can monitor the quality of data from a data source external to the company. "We can see it start to degrade, and we can choose another data source based on that knowledge," he said.

This is important in a world where data is ever-changing and needs to be delivered to the right customer at exactly the right time for the right price, Witherspoon said.

When designing a hybrid cloud environment, there is one of two paths to take -- either the environments are managed as closely together and with as much similarity as possible, or the private cloud and public cloud coexist, but keep their differentiated features. FlightStats chose the latter option, for the most part, but there is one deployment tool that lays across both environments: SaltStack, an open source configuration management tool that competes with the likes of Puppet, Chef and Ansible -- recently acquired by Red Hat.

The FlightStats team has built custom modules for SaltStack that automate the spin-up of VMs in both the VMware on-premises environment and the AWS public cloud. These modules also automatically perform error detection, and, where appropriate, automatically fix problems.

"Inside of Salt, it's very easy for us to query things and say, 'How are you doing? Oh, we're now in a condition where I need to take some action; let's go take that action,'" Witherspoon said.

Underpinning all of this is another open source tool, which Witherspoon's team wrote for itself, called The Hub, which handles the challenge of data gravity by moving data through constructs called channels between the different environments.

"I can go find the data at the stage it needs to be in in The Hub at the right channel, grab that piece of data, do the transformation, put it in another Hub channel and make it available through our API," Witherspoon said.

The Hub can be put into different infrastructures, and it abstracts the underlying storage dependencies away for a uniform experience across clouds. The Hub can also be queried to make assessments about the health of the data at each stage of the pipeline.

"There are many, many, many tools for storing data and moving data around, but very few of them handle replication or handle it well, and the ones that do tend to cost a lot of money," Witherspoon said of the decision to create The Hub from scratch. "While we could've spent a lot of money, we were more interested in something we could use to solve our problem and solve people's problems like ours."

While the environments function together well thanks to the glue Witherspoon and staff have concocted themselves, they remain a study in contrasts. Amazon, for example, still has some work to do to match VMware's customer support organization, Witherspoon said, while automation tools available for the VMware environment could use refinement.

"We're lucking out with SaltStack to a point, but we've had to do a lot of heavy lifting ourselves," Witherspoon said. "There are some folks that are working on abstracting that problem away, but they can be fairly expensive; I welcome contributions from the community."

Getty Images: Hybrid cloud management takes customizable tools

Another enterprising IT shop which has customized tools to better manage the hybrid cloud environment is Getty Images.

"Up until recently, we were primarily a VMware shop," said Steve Talt, senior director of platform engineering at Getty Images.

The company has around 400 VMware ESX hosts running about 6,000 VMs, as well as another 1,600 physical hosts. It is rolling out a new 300-instance cloud based on Mirantis Inc.'s distribution of OpenStack.

There are also a handful of applications that Getty Images runs on AWS to support app development agility or specific platform as a service capabilities. Most of the applications Getty Images ran there are being evaluated for a move back into OpenStack, Talt said. But the AWS environment will never completely go away.

"As a company, we can't scale regionally the way that they do -- especially around [the Simple Storage Service (S3)]," Talt said. "If I have a photographer in Hong Kong, I'm not going to build a data center in Hong Kong that provides S3 buckets."

Getty Images is using RightScale Inc.'s Cloud Portfolio Management tool as an interface into all its clouds, and has also built its own custom modules in the commercial RightScale product using cloud application templates (CAT).

If I didn't have the right workforce, I would never be able to do it.
Steve Taltsenior director of platform engineering, Getty Images

"We have a single API to code to … I can write a [CAT] that lets me choose between AWS or OpenStack and it will deploy the whole thing based on what I built there," Talt said.

As with FlightStats, this do-it-yourself approach to cloud requires a sharp IT staff that must be retained long term.

"I have people here I know will figure stuff out and make it work," Talt said. "If I didn't have the right workforce, I would never be able to do it."

You can also lead developers to an interface, Talt said, but you can't always force them to use it.

"They've built their own CloudFormation templates and Auto Scaling Groups, and they are using many of the capabilities of AWS," Talt said. "Now, I suddenly provide them another interface to use. 

"For greenfield users, this isn't as much of an issue, but for existing AWS users, I'm working to ease them into it and helping them see more and more of the benefits."

Beth Pariseau is senior news writer for SearchAWS. Write to her at bpariseau@techtarget.com or follow @PariseauTT on Twitter.

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What are the real-world tools that work for hybrid cloud management in your environment?
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Werner Vogels, Amazon CTO, recently discussed six design laws that have governed AWS' business and growth.

Many of those laws are relevant to the FlightStats, Inc. and Getty Images, Inc. examples that you described, particulary The Gestalt Principle ̶ “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” AWS is building an ecosystem of technology and consulting partners to provide complete solutions for customers.

Equinix recently wrote about the six cloud computing design laws that Vogels discussed. You can read more about those laws here: http://bit.ly/1PhmOVX

Jeff Rutherford
commenting on behalf of IDG and Equinix
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