Cloud Computing on a Stick

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Yesterday I wrote about the continuing move of Canonical/Ubuntu into the enterprise space, specifically in terms of working with IBM. But as further proof of its intentions here, Canonical has also announced a collaboration with the enterprise content management company Alfresco:

Alfresco Software, Inc., the leader in open source enterprise content management (ECM), today announced that Canonical, the commercial sponsor of the highly regarded Linux distribution, Ubuntu, will offer Alfresco Labs 3 within a pre-built software download as part of its partner repository. Using the simple apt-get command, end-users can execute a full installation, with all drivers and relevant dependencies pre-packaged. This move provides Alfresco with a new platform from which to reach a rapidly expanding Ubuntu user-base.

Of course, for hardened users of Ubuntu, Debian etc., apt-get is hardly rocket science, but the press release quoted above underlines an important point about this powerful feature: that it allows enterprises to download applications with a single command, secure in the knowledge that all the messy business of dependencies will be handled automatically. That seems to me to be something that the open source world could really build on, since it makes the job of IT departments significantly easier, and yet is a standard feature of many GNU/Linux distributions.

One company that is effectively doing this is Oracle. I had a chat earlier this week with Monica Kumar, Oracle's senior director, Linux and Open Source Product Marketing, and Wim Coekaerts, vice president of Linux Engineering there. Amongst other things, they were telling me about Oracle's new VM Templates, which “provide an innovative approach to deploying a fully configured software stack by offering pre-installed and pre-configured software images.”

Now, I have to confess that I'm rather sceptical of the whole VM bandwagon: the idea of adding yet another software layer to the enterprise stack seems about as wise as trying to insert a few more dozen plates under an already tottering pile of them. But leaving such thoughts on one side, the VM Templates seem a worthwhile approach, for precisely the same reasons that apt-get is a great tool: both make trying out new apps trivially easy for companies (although in the case of Oracle's VM Templates we're talking about some serious 4 Gigabyte downloads – not exactly trivial as far as size is concerned).

What struck me about the VM Template idea – and, the related possibilities of a supercharged apt-get – is that in a strange sort of way what it offers is cloud computing, but locally. By providing the stack as a binary blob, you insulate users from all that fiddly stuff of getting things to work, which is also one of the big attractions of cloud computing.

And to those that say that local clouds miss the whole point, which is about having infinitely expandable resources “out there”, I would say, well, in general, yes, but there are circumstances when you might prefer to keep things local, while still enjoying the blob-like, all-in-one simplicity that clouds provide. At such times, cloud computing on a stick, albeit limited, can suddenly look highly attractive.

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