Is cloud computing simply different than on premise development, or is cloud computing actually forcing you to create better applications than you normally would? In other words, is cloud computing merely imposing different design principles, or forcing better design principles? A little while back I got into a discussion with a developer in which I was arguing that cloud computing, and specifically Windows Azure in his case, was forcing developers to adopt better design principles. His opinion was that cloud computing was not yielding better systems; just different systems. In this blog, I will argue that cloud computing does force developers to use better design practices, and hence better applications.
So the first thing to define, of course, is the word “better”, in the context of application development. Looking at a few definitions online, better means “superior quality”. As it relates to this discussion then, I stipulate that cloud computing can yield higher quality applications in terms of scalability, everything else being equal.
Before going further I need to also outline the difference between performance and scalability. Performance and scalability are two related concepts, but they don’t mean the same thing. Scalability is the measure of system performance given various loads. So when developers design for performance, they usually give higher priority to a given load and tend to optimize for the given load. When developers design for scalability, the actual performance at a given load is not as important; the ability to ensure reasonable performance regardless of the load becomes the objective. This can lead to very different design choices. For example, if your objective is to obtains the fastest response time possible for a service you are building, you may choose the implement a TCP connection that never closes until the client chooses to close the connection (in other words, a tightly coupled service from a connectivity standpoint), and on which a connection session is established for faster processing on the next request (like SQL Server or other database systems for example). If you objective is to scale, you may implement a service that answers to requests without keeping session state, so that server resources are released as quickly as possible, like a REST service for example. This alternate design would likely have a slower response time than the TCP service for any given load, but would continue to function at very large loads because of its inherently loosely coupled design. An example of a REST service is the NO-SQL implementation in the Microsoft cloud called Azure Tables.
Now, back to cloud computing… Cloud computing is designed to help you scale your applications, specifically when you use Platform as a Service (PaaS) offerings. However it’s not automatic. You can design a tightly-coupled TCP service as discussed above, and as you can imagine, it probably won’t scale even if you place the service in the cloud because it isn’t using a connection pattern that will allow it to scale [note: I am not implying that all TCP systems do not scale; I am just illustrating the scalability concepts with an imaginary TCP service that isn’t designed to scale for the purpose of this discussion]. The other service, using REST, will have a better chance to scale because, by design, it minimizes resource consumption for individual requests and doesn’t tie a client connection to a specific endpoint (which means you can easily deploy this service to hundreds of machines without much trouble, as long as your pockets are deep enough).
The TCP and REST services discussed above are both valid designs; the TCP service is faster and the REST service scales better. So is it fair to say that one service is fundamentally better than the other? No; not unless you need to scale. And if you don’t need to scale, then you don’t need the cloud in the first place. However, it is interesting to note that if you do need to scale, then a loosely coupled system becomes a better design because it can almost always scale better than a tightly-coupled system. And because most applications grow overtime, with an increasing user base, new functional requirements, increased data and so forth, most applications eventually do need to scale. So in my humble opinion, I conclude that a loosely coupled system is not just different than a tightly coupled system; it is a better design, because it will stand the test of time. And in my book, if a system stands the test of time better than another, it is of superior quality.
Because cloud computing demands loosely coupled systems so that its underlying service architecture can be leveraged, developers ultimately have no choice but to design loosely coupled systems for the cloud. And because loosely coupled systems are better…
… the cloud forces better design practices.
My 2 cents.