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Dustin Amrhein

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Is Standardization Right for Cloud-Based Application Environments?

The need for eventual standardization

For me, this week has been one of those weeks that I think all technologists enjoy. You know what I'm talking about. The week has been one of those rare periods of time when you get to put day-to-day work on the backburner (or at least delay it until you get back to your hotel at night), and instead focus on learning, networking, and stepping outside of your comfort cocoon.

This week, I am getting a chance to attend Cloud Expo, two CloudCamps, and QCon all within a four-day span. In the process, I am meeting many smart folks (all the while finding out there are indeed people behind those Twitter handles) and coming across quite a few interesting cloud solutions. I could easily write a post talking about the people I met and the cool things they are doing, but instead I want to focus on the cloud solutions I came across during the week. When it comes to the solutions, rather than focusing in on one or two specific solutions, I wanted to focus in on a class of solutions, specifically cloud management solutions.

It's an obvious trend... the number of cloud management solutions on display far, far outweigh any other class of offering. To be fair, calling a particular offering a cloud management solution is to brush a broad stroke. Accordingly, these solutions vary in some respects. Some focus more on delivering capabilities to setup and configure cloud infrastructure, while others emphasize facilities to enable the effective consumption of said infrastructure. While some of the capabilities vary, there is one capability that nearly all have in common. Just about each of these solutions that I have seen provide some sort of functionality around constructing and deploying application environments in a cloud.

Now, the approach that each solution delivers around this particular capability widely varies. Before we get into that, let's start by agreeing on what I mean by an application environment. In this context, when I say application environment, I am thinking of two main elements:

- Application infrastructure componentry: The application infrastructure componentry represent the building blocks of the application environment. These are the worker nodes (i.e. management servers, application servers, web servers, etc.) that support your application.

- Application infrastructure configuration: Application infrastructure is a means to the end of providing an application. Users always customize the configuration of the infrastructure in order to effectively deliver their application.

As I said, in tackling the pieces of these application environments, the solutions took different approaches. Nearly all had a way of representing the environment as a single logical unit. The name of that unit varied (patterns, templates, assemblies, etc.), as did the degree of abstraction. Some, but not all, provided a direct means to include configuration into that representation. Others left it up to the users to work out a construct by which they could include the configuration of their environment into the logical representation of their application environment.

At this point in the cloud game, I believe most would expect this high degree of variation. In addition, I believe most would agree it is a healthy thing as it gives users a high degree of choice (even if it can be frustrating as a vendor to try to differentiate/explain your particular approach). However, as the market begins to validate the right approaches, I firmly believe we need some sort of standardization or commonality in how we approach representing application environments for the cloud.

As I see it, an eventual standardization in the space of representing application environments built for the cloud will enable several beneficial outcomes. This includes, but is not limited to:

- Multi-system management: One of the most obvious benefits of a standardized application environment description is that it sets the course for the use of these representations by multiple different management systems. Users should be able to take these patterns, templates, assemblies, and move them from one deployment management system to another.

- Policy-based management: A standard description of the environment and configuration paves the way for systems to be able to interact with the environment. Among other things, this may enable generically applicable policy-based management of the application environment.

- Sustainable PaaS systems: My last post goes into this in more detail, but it is my belief that to build sustainable PaaS platforms we need a common representation of application environments.

Admittedly, there is much more to this topic than a few words. These are just a few quick thoughts inspired by some of the emerging solutions I got an up-close look at this week. What do you think? Should we gradually move toward standardization in this space?

More Stories By Dustin Amrhein

Dustin Amrhein joined IBM as a member of the development team for WebSphere Application Server. While in that position, he worked on the development of Web services infrastructure and Web services programming models. In his current role, Dustin is a technical specialist for cloud, mobile, and data grid technology in IBM's WebSphere portfolio. He blogs at You can follow him on Twitter at