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Does Your Cloud Depend on Dwarves in a Box?

Posted by Jason Bloomberg on Sep 25, 2013

Remember the fascinating story of the Mechanical Turk? This chess-playing automaton was a sensation in the courts of eighteenth century Europe. Who ever heard of a machine that could play chess? Turns out it was a dwarf in a box, playing chess via the manipulation of levers.

It is fair to ask whether your Cloud provider uses their own dwarves in boxes as well. In other words, is their Cloud provisioning fully automated, or is there simply an interface that suggests a fully automated back end, while what really goes on when you ask for a machine to be provisioned is that people behind the scenes have to do some or all of the work manually?

We can trust that the core provisioning at Amazon Web Services (AWS) is fully automated – there aren’t enough dwarves in the world to manually handle all the tasks that would be necessary to support AWS customers. But even in AWS’s case, certain tasks must be handled manually, for example, AWS Import/Export.



What about other Cloud providers? Let’s take a closer look at IBM SoftLayer. The reason I’m curious about this provider is that they tout their bare metal offering: you can provision physical servers in various configurations. To be sure, their Bare Metal Instance order interface is every bit as user-friendly as Amazon’s virtual machine provisioning interface.  But with all the configuration options, it strains one’s credulity to assume that SoftLayer is able to fully automate the bare metal provisioning process for all possible order configurations. The bottom line: my guess  is that they have a dwarf in a box handling at least some of the provisioning tasks.

Fair enough. Perhaps SoftLayer or other Cloud providers do not fully automate the provisioning process. As a result, provisioning might take hours or even days instead of minutes. But this whole discussion may be missing the point: does it really matter whether Cloud provisioning is fully automated?

The answer: in many cases, probably not. Yes, manual provisioning shouldn’t take weeks or nobody will be happy. But if setting up a physical server precisely the way you want it takes a few hours because there are people handling the tasks behind the scenes, that’s small price to pay for the automated ordering interface and the pay-as-you-go financial model. And as SoftLayer is quick to point out, virtual machines aren’t for everyone. Sometimes only bare metal will do.

Bottom line: be sure to understand your needs, and then verify the Cloud provider can meet them. It doesn’t really matter if there’s a dwarf in the box as long as they play good chess.


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