Dreaming of the Cloud

So far cloud 2011 is just client-server 1997 with new jargon.

As a modeler who manages a serious EC2 cluster, someone who has handed thousands of dollars to Amazon over the last few years, I remain frustrated at what the industry has settled on as the main unit of value. Root access on a Linux virtual machine does an admirable job of isolating my applications from other users, but it is a poor way to economically prioritize. We need a smarter metaphor to distribute a long-running job across a bunch of machines and to make sure we pay for what we use. I don’t so much care about having a fleet of machines ready to handle a spike in web traffic. Instead I want to be able to swipe my credit card to ramp up what would usually take a week, so it will finish in a couple hours.

(If you are a Moore’s Law optimist who thinks glacial, CPU-bound code is a thing of the past, you might be surprised to hear that one of my models has been training on an EC2 m1.large instance for the last 14 hours, and is just over halfway finished… Think render farms and statistical NLP, not Photoshop filters.)

My dream cloud interface is not about booting virtual machines and monitoring jobs, but about spending money so my job finishes quicker. The cloud should let me launch some code, and get it chugging along in the background. Then later, I would like to spend a certain amount of money, and let reverse auction magic decide how much more CPU & RAM that money buys. This should feel like bidding for AdWords on Google. So where I might use the Unix command “nice” to prioritize a job, I could call “expensiveNice” on a PID to get that job more CPU or RAM. Virtual machines are hip this week, but applications & jobs are still the more natural way to think about computing tasks.

This sort of flexibility might require cloud applications to distribute themselves across one or more CPUs. So perhaps the cloud provider insists that applications be multi-threaded. Or Amazon could offer “expensiveNice” for applications written in a side-effect free language like Haskell, so GHC can take care of the CPU distribution.

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