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Skytap adds orchestration to dev/test cloud

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Skytap, the lab automation cloud maker funded in part by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, is adding features to its eponymous tool to make it more useful for companies wrestling with deploying applications on public and private clouds.

Skytap is like other lab manager products that VMware and Citrix Systems acquired to take control of development, test, and quality assurance environments. Except unlike Lab Manager and VMLogix (which have had their names changed), Skytap Cloud actually runs in a cloud itself. In this case, Skytap's cloud control freak for dev and test environments runs in a Savvis data center in Tukwila, Washington, not far from the company's Seattle headquarters, and in another CSC data center outside of Chicago. The company has been running the tool on a mix of blade servers from Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM, but in recent months Skytap has been using whitebox servers, chief marketing officer Sundar Raghavan tells El Reg.

With the Skytap August 2011 release, the company is adding two new features. The first is called self-service cloud orchestration, which allows for programmers or system administrators deploying multi-tier applications to specify the order in which virtual machines are loaded out there on the cloud. For instance, to get a fully stack of programming tools loaded, it may be necessary to have an Active Directory server load up first, then maybe a Microsoft Team Foundation server, then the MySQL database server, followed by load balancers and then the web servers. Once the rules are created in Skytap, they are enforced whenever any virtual server in the stack is suspended or shut down and restarted.

The August release of the Skytap tool also allows companies to deploy hub and spoke network configurations as they would normally set up in their test and dev environments and move them into the cloud. According to Raghavan, it is tough to create a hub, or shared resource like a central Microsoft Team Foundation server (to use the same example as above, but it could also be an Active Directory or LDAP server) out there in the cloud that connect different dev/test environments to it through routing policies like they have on their subnets inside the firewall.

The way test and dev works on the cloud today, says Raghavan, your dev team has one set of code, middleware, and database servers on a subnet on the cloud and the test people have a different (and quite possibly a copy) of the same environment on a separate VLAN. So you need two virtual servers in this scenario and you have to worry about synchronizing the two software stacks. What you would rather do is have one copy of the database and middleware on a single virtual machine out there on the cloud on a centralized network and then put the dev team on one VLAN and the test team on a third VLAN, giving both access to the database and middleware image. Those VLANs are the spokes, and that central resource – a database and middleware stack – is the hub.

The ability to deploy applications to public clouds or internal private clouds once they have been developed and tested was added with the February 2011 release. Back with the May 2011 release, Skytap, which is itself built on VMware's ESXi and Citrix Systems' Xen hypervisors, allowed for VMs to scale up to 8 virtual CPUs and up to 32GB of virtual memory so that enterprise-class applications and databases could be plunked onto the Skytap Cloud for testing. Skytap wrote its own network abstraction and storage abstraction layers to mesh with these hypervisors, and then laid the cloud automation layer on top of this. The Skytap Cloud supports VMs running Windows, Linux, and Solaris (the x64 version only). Some customers are deploying production applications on the Skytap Cloud, but that is not what the tool was designed to do. Others want to put an application on Skytap Cloud first, such as a Sharepoint server, and see how it behaves first before they put it into their data center.

Skytap has over 160 customers using its dev/test cloud control freak. A base configuration with five users, five Skytap virtual machines (equivalent to one CPU core and 1GB of memory), 500 VM-hours, and 200GB of storage costs $250 per month. A typical customer at this point has 25 users, 25 Skytap VMs, 1,000 VM-hours of compute, and 2TB of storage, and pays around $2,000 per month.

Now, given the fact that Bezos is Amazon's founder and Amazon is the most famous supplier of cloud computing capacity in the world, you might be wondering why Skytap doesn't run on Amazon's EC2 cloud. The answer, says Raghavan, is that the snapshotting features on EC2 and its related storage clouds are far too slow. While appropriate for many production environments, EC2 is too slow for the test/dev customers that Skytap is chasing. ®

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