A Sandbox In The Cloud

I am honoured and excited to bring you an article written by a Rackspace staff, Joseph Palumbo. My thoughts will be at the end of this article. Thanks Joseph! Disclaimer: I’m not paid by Rackspace.

As a founding member of Rackspace’s Managed Cloud support team, Joseph spends half of his time teaching customers about the Cloud and the other half learning about the Cloud from them. Follow him on Twitter.

Solid, high performing websites and web applications don’t happen by accident. From imagining an idea, creating code and developing an intuitive user experience, there are many behind the scenes tasks to ensure everything works smoothly.

Despite how simple a website or web app might appear, the reality is that even the simplest looking sites can have powerful and complex code behind them. The complexity means that one small change can take down the entire site. However, both business needs and technologies evolve, necessitating changes to your site. The choice, however, is how you implement these changes.

You can choose to make code changes to your live, production environment, but this is a dangerous proposition. By doing so, you assume the risk of making a mistake that can be visible to users, or creating an error that can make your entire site go dark for an extended period of time. The better alternative is for businesses to create a test and dev sandbox that mirrors the live environment, but in the recent past, this was expensive to do. The high cost presented a difficult decision: do you spend the money to create a test and development environment or do you assume the risk of introducing a bug or error into the live environment?

With the advances in cloud computing, you no longer have to choose. Businesses can easily clone their production environment and create a test and dev sandbox. In the cloned site, developers can replicate the ratio of usage rather than purchase all of the horsepower; this means that you can have a more cost effective version of your site because you aren’t serving up production traffic.

This cloned site can be created on demand for testing code changes and will literally cost just pennies per hour. Not only can businesses create a cloned site for temporary testing, the cloud presents a cost effective solution for a long-term test and dev sandbox.

Furthermore, the test dev sandbox allows experimentation to happen behind the scenes without anyone outside the company (or the IT department) ever knowing. While you are making changes to your test and dev sandbox, the production site is humming along, bringing in revenue, collecting customer data and maintaining your online presence.

Once your developers have perfected the changes and are ready to move the mirror site into production, it can be uploaded directly. If there is a load balancer in front of your configuration, you have the ability to make the test environment the new production environment. You simply make a change on the load balancer, redirecting traffic from the old production site to the new production site in the middle of the night. This is easily done from a systems administration point of view and can result in little or no downtime to your configuration.

In the past, I would receive frantic phone calls from people who didn’t have a test and dev site and didn’t know their code very well. They only had a production site and were trying to make changes, but they were concerned about the potential of bringing down their site, or even worse, making an irreparable error such as erasing part of their database.

The cloud lowers the cost of having a test and dev site, allowing businesses to prove out their code changes without adversely impacting their production site. You can have peace of mind that you won’t make visible mistakes to your users or delete any of their data. Peace of mind is worth every penny – and with the cloud, it won’t cost very many pennies to have.

Post-article thoughts

I have personally maintained development, test and production web servers, along with the corresponding web sites. It can get exhausting, especially when you have to coordinate the efforts of other developers and testers (from dev and test sites), and juggle inquiries from customers and customer service officers (from live sites).

I’ve also personally done server maintenance. There was this one time when there was a change in some wiring structure in the data centre, and I had to be there personally (because there’s no one else) to make sure my servers were still operational after the change. I’m really not a hardware kind of guy…

DNS propagation, IP address settings, SSL certificates, server upgrades. If there was an easy way to enclose all that into a standalone testing environment, my life would have been so much easier.

Blog Action Day 2007 – Spread the news

Blog Action Day is an initiative to bring mass participation of bloggers to talk about one issue on one day. The topic this year is the environment.

The day is slated for 15 Oct 2007, so you still have time. There are 3 ways you can participate:

  • Post something on your blog about the environment on that day
  • Donate your earnings for that day to an environmental charity
  • Promote Blog Action Day

Check out who else is participating at the Blog Action Day website!