Cloud Computing – Made Simple and Affordable

Depending on how many people you ask to define the meaning of “Cloud Computing“, you are very likely to get the same numbers of answers.

Cloud Computing builds on decades of research in a number of computer science fields including grid computing, distributed computing, utility computing and more recently networking, web and application services.

It implies a seamless Service Oriented Architecture (SOA); basically the delivery of an integrated and orchestrated suite of on-demand services to an end-user through the grouping of functionality around business processes, making them accessible over a network and allowing these services to communicate with each other by passing data from one service to another in a loosely coupled manner.

This concept built upon and evolving from older concepts of distributed computing and modular programing, promises to reduce information technology overhead, virtualization of resources, greater flexibility, and lower total cost of ownership. (TCO)

A group from North Carolina State University and George Mason University, presented this year at Educause 2008 in Orlando, Florida, a full-day seminar on “Cloud Computing Made Simple and Affordable”.

Since the year 2004 they have been hard at work building the Virtual Computing Lab (VCL), a new, scalable and accessible computing system architecture.

High costs, support and security issues, software licensing, space requirements, and demands for enhanced local and remote 24 x 7 user access constantly challenge computing in education. The Virtual Computing Lab (VCL), a new, adaptable, and open source approach to computing, provides a cloud-like rich services computing environment to serve advanced research and student computing simultaneously and affordably, within a scalable and accessible system architecture. The VCL maintains the diversity and flexibility essential to an academic environment while providing computational resources with an unprecedented lack of restrictions and significant reduction in costs. The VCL is an Internet-based service that allows users to augment their own computers of varying types and capabilities—without their having to acquire new or uniform computers, install and run advanced software, provide their own software support, and so forth.

The speakers at the session included Samuel F. Averitt (NCSU), Aaron Peeler (NCSU), Sharon P. Pitt (GMU), John Savage (GMU), Henry E. Schaffer (NCSU), Sarah R. Stein (NCSU) and Mladen A. Vouk (NCSU).

The open-source project has been submitted and recently accepted here by the Apache Foundation as one of its Incubator Projects.

VCL relies on the LAMP architecture, which includes Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP and it was originally developed in a blade environment using IBM blades and xCAT, which is a scalable distributed computing management and provisioning tool that provides a unified interface for hardware control, discovery, and OS diskful/diskfree deployment.

VCL provides a web 2.0 reservation system, making accessible a multitude of hardware and virtualized systems running a variety of operating systems and applications to the end-users via Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP), for a pre-determined period of time. Images for these systems are maintained online or offline dependant on a last-used/commonly used algorithm, so an image offline could take up to 15 minutes to load.

Not only does this approach address the issue of providing users access to applications without the need for an installation, but also by making use of virtualization technologies such as VMware ESXi Hypervisor, provides the capability of multiplying by a substantial factor computing power while reducing the total cost of ownership.

Going even further, computers not being used could be aggregated to the cloud, making them all that valuable.