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Microclouds Loom at the Network's Edge

A variation of cloud computing one day could lead to the benefits of the cloud being extended to troops on the battlefield, or to humanitarian relief workers, no matter where they operate. These microclouds would be generated by small computer servers running on devices as small as a high-capacity universal serial bus thumb drive attached to a laptop computer.
By Max Cacas, SIGNAL Magazine

Both government and the private sector may benefit from a new approach.

A variation of cloud computing one day could lead to the benefits of the cloud being extended to troops on the battlefield, or to humanitarian relief workers, no matter where they operate. These microclouds would be generated by small computer servers running on devices as small as a high-capacity universal serial bus thumb drive attached to a laptop computer.

While many liken the cloud to a return to the old mainframe computing model, this slightly different vision could make limited applications of cloud computing possible in the battlespace. These microcloud servers would operate at forward locations in a future battlefield, supporting the work of warfighters and their commanders at the far edge of the deployed combat operations network.

Until recently, the concept of microclouds was still just a theory on paper. Now, however, at least one company is pursuing the approach with concrete results, and others soon may follow suit.

Patrick Chanezon is a senior director, developer relations, with VMware, a software company known for server virtualization and cloud computing applications. Chanezon originally sketched out his vision for microclouds when he was the cloud advocacy team manager with Google in San Francisco. He recently left Google after six years to join VMware, where he is responsible for overseeing a team of developers writing code for the company’s next generation of cloud computing applications.

“It was more a concept; there were no products,” Chanezon explains about his original approach. “There was no software” designed to develop a microcloud network, he continues. His former employer, Google, was developing “the big cloud” associated with supporting its very popular search engine as well as public cloud-based data centers.

Then VMware unveiled a new product, Cloud Foundry, which entails software designed specifically to create cloud computing platforms. Chanezon says he especially was interested in a subset of the application called Micro Cloud Foundry. “It’s a micro version of Cloud Foundry that you can run on your laptop,” he notes. “It’s so small, the binary code that makes the application work can be housed on a USB [universal serial bus] thumb drive.”

Chanezon points to the development, over the past two years, of platform-as-a-service (PaaS) for distributed computing environments. Citing industry leaders in the nascent field, Chanezon says, “Amazon has Beanstalk, Microsoft has Azure,” along with other lesser-known firms such as NetApp, Rackspace and Joyent. The independent research company Forrester Research estimates the global cloud computing market will reach a value of $241 billion by 2020, compared with $40.7 billion in 2010.

Chanezon continues that in a cloud computing/PaaS environment, software applications and the underlying operating system are running entirely in the data center of the third-party service provider. That, he explains, has been a major hurdle to the adoption of cloud computing in large enterprise computing environments, both in private industry and, most notably, in the defense community.

Cloud Foundry and Micro Cloud Foundry, Chanezon explains, are both open-source applications, which allows users to install the software in their own data centers and create their own private cloud computing environments. He says a number of public cloud computing providers also are using Cloud Foundry to create and manage PaaS provided to customers. In a microcloud environment, Chanezon allows, the PaaS that creates and manages the server runs within the laptop or thumb drive in which it is installed.

“It’s an Ubuntu [a variant of the Linux operating system] virtual machine running on top of VMware” server virtualization application, Chanezon explains. From there, a user can run popular enterprise-level applications such as Structured Query Language (SQL) servers and database managers. The feature set of applications, he says, is identical in configurations and requirements to those hosted on his firm’s own cloud computing environment.

Addressing the specific needs of the military information technology community when it comes to cloud computing, Chanezon says the next step is to develop communication and reputation protocols to facilitate the synchronization of data between microcloud servers and the rest of the network. Reputation protocols are simply a way of verifying through URLs or other means that data has originated in a trusted source.

Chanezon explains that the microcloud can run independently, in a “disconnected” mode, gathering data and running its applications through a laptop browser or through a mobile application. “Then, when you are connected again [to the network], there needs to be a piece of software that synchronizes the state of the microcloud with a private-based Cloud Foundry server,” he offers.

One benefit of this model of microcloud computing is that it allows for continued gathering of important data in environments where there is limited network connectivity. This applies especially to battlefield conditions in which network connections could become sporadic or nonexistent at any time.

As one step toward the needed communication/reputation protocols, Chanezon says, VMware last November announced that it had developed a new feature that enables Cloud Foundry users to create secure tunnels that allow microclouds to readily access data and applications in the user’s private cloud environment. With the creation of the secure tunnel, Chanezon notes, developers now are working on “communication and orchestration protocols that would operate on top of these tunnels.” These would verify the identity of a microcloud reaching out to the master public/private cloud and automatically initiate the synchronization of data between the two clouds.

Chanezon also believes that, in addition to the reputation protocols, application-specific protocols need to be developed to help microcloud managers determine whether their applications are up to date and optimized.

Looking ahead, Chanezon sees a day when a military unit’s information technology specialist will use Micro Cloud Foundry to create a mission-specific microcloud server on a USB thumb-drive on his or her laptop. That server would be verified by the battalion’s master cloud server. The laptop-based microcloud then would be deployed in support of the mission, using all the regular software applications and databases normally accessed in the field. As network connections become available, the microcloud would authenticate and transmit its data as needed to the master cloud application.

Because Cloud Foundry is an open source development program, Chanezon believes that the user community of developers soon will write code for the remaining communications and authentication protocols. He adds that the creation of those protocols will be key to the eventual adoption of microcloud computing.

“Integrate the Cloud Into a C4I Strategy” (SIGNAL Magazine,July 2011): http://bit.ly/utnd3L
Cloud Foundry Open Source Community/Blog:
Patrick Chanezon blog: http://wordpress.chanezon.com