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Using The Cloud To Manage The Cloud

Managing cloud-based VMs isn't easy. Tools from IaaS vendors are rudimentary and proprietary, while integration with enterprise management consoles is complex. SaaS management software is closing the gap with new services able to manage systems in multiple clouds alongside internal VMs.

A frustrating reality when renting cloud-based servers (IaaS) is that, while the cloud makes it easy to deploy and use virtual machines, it makes it harder to manage and monitor them. Most public infrastructure services, like Amazon EC2 or Rackspace, provide only rudimentary tools for configuring, instantiating, and monitoring online virtual resources.

Furthermore, large enterprises with comprehensive data center management and process orchestration suites managing their internal systems will find integrating these with cloud-based resources exceedingly complicated--and it's downright impossible for smaller IT shops without a resident systems management guru.

Yet as is happening throughout the IT software food chain, the cloud, specifically SaaS software, offers the best hope at a convenient solution to a vexing problem. The latest incarnation is a systems management service from ScaleXtreme that offers a single-pane interface that's straightforward enough for even IT generalists.

Like many SaaS applications, ScaleXtreme's product can be deployed in minutes. It presents a deceptively simple interface, yet it includes features like server autodiscovery, alerts, and process automation, commonly found on dedicated management platforms. But perhaps the product's most compelling feature, particularly for SMBs lacking an internal management platform, is the ability to seamlessly manage systems from multiple cloud providers and on-premises servers from a single console-- and I mean seamlessly. For example, you can create a script to automatically and simultaneously install a full LAMP stack on a set of Linux VMs by drag-and-dropping a script icon on server instances running on an internal Xen server, external EC2 instance, or hosted VMware VM. Like any decent automation system, these tasks can be scheduled to run once or recur.

Users store and manage their scripts through a central, version-controlled repository, and borrowing a page from social networks, can even publish scripts for others to use--a feature ScaleXtreme is leveraging to create a full-fledged after market in cloud automation software. Borrowing an increasingly popular concept, the service is extensible through an App Store (hope they don't get sued for this terminology). Published scripts are hypervisor agnostic (but are obviously specific to the underlying guest OS, Windows or Linux), so Linux scripts will work whether the VM is running on an internal VMware host or external cloud provider.

So far, the App Store is fairly limited, supporting installation scripts for common middleware like JBoss, LAMP or Postgres SQL; however, in an interview, CEO Nand Mulchandani says the company has visions of using its App Store as a deployment platform for full-fledged virtual appliances like Cloud.com's CloudStack application environment, Vyatta's security stack, or Nimsoft's application monitor.

The service, which just opened up to free, public testing, has not yet gone to production, and final pricing has not been released. So far, it only supports machines running on Amazon EC2, Rackspace, and VMware, but Mulchandani says look for that list to expand. ScaleXtreme faces stiff competition from IaaS providers themselves, including Amazon, with itsAWS Management Console, and Rackspace, which recently acquired CloudClick, along with other startups, likeRightScale, and even do-it-yourselfers using the Drupal-based Clanavi package. With cloud infrastructure now mainstream, and hybrid cloud/on-premises architectures becoming common within the enterprise, the time is right to investigate cloud-based management platforms, but proceed with caution as the field is inchoate, dynamic and rapidly maturing.

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