Cloud computing with Amazon EC2 will get easier

Easier configuration and more options will simplify working in the Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2), says a Harvard computer science lecturer.

Until recently,'s Elastic Cloud Computing (EC2) service involved a steep learning curve, according to David J. Malan, lecturer on computer science at the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Harvard University. But he says that over the past few months, things have gotten considerably easier.

In the past, it was difficult setting up virtual machines on the remote servers provided by the Amazon EC2 service. Today, however, Amazon has a much easier user interface and set of tutorials that can assist current and future users of the cloud computing service. At this site, users can learn more about the various components of Amazon's cloud computing offering, Malan told users during a recent Usenix Conference in San Diego, California.

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Malan's department needed to use EC2 because, Malan said, they're "running into a ceiling" with a limited amount of rack space still available for installing additional servers. "If a grad student has a term paper to write, [Harvard] can't give him a computer because they don't have rack space," Malan said. He noted that, because his department has run out of space for servers, "IT can outsource the computing to a computing on demand" provider.

The EC2 architecture allows the user to select an Amazon Machine Interface (AMI) that enables the user to select which type of server interface he or she wants to run. During the past few months, Malan said, "a bunch of third parties formed to make it easier" to use EC2. "What is nice is that there is a community creating AMIs, so that AMIs are becoming available, using a non-technical way of describing them," he added. in the past, if an IT person wanted to create, for example, a virtual machine using a Ubuntu server, the task of defining and preparing it for use would have fallen on this IT professional, and it would have taken a fair amount of effort to configure.

Because of the efforts of third parties, a growing library of AMIs, ranging from a variety of Linux servers to Microsoft Windows Server 2003 and 2008, have become available. The current list of AMIs created by the developer community is available, along with the most recently posted AMIs with links to AMIs for Linux or Windows.

The growing library of AMIs and the increased amount of documentation on the Amazon Web Services site should make it easier for more IT departments to configure and run virtual machines, use storage and other services provided by Amazon.

"Next year at this time, [EC2] will be a different landscape, and hopefully a lot of problems [that early adopters experienced] will be resolved," Malan predicted. With the involvement of the development community on EC2 issues, he also expects that "things will get even easier for getting software and spawning it on demand."

Malan noted that Microsoft and Google's approaches to cloud computing have been "very different" from the one taken by Amazon. With Amazon actively working to create useful documentation and make their services simpler to configure and run, Malan said that he gives them "credit for pushing the envelope."

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