Amazon EC2 creator launches private cloud start-up

Nimbula turns any data center into an Amazon-style cloud service

With backing from VMware, the man behind Amazon EC2 builds private cloud software.

The "private cloud" is a popular phrase in IT these days, but often a meaningless one, with tech vendors slapping the label on any old product that happens to make an existing IT function slightly more efficient.

Logically, a private cloud should act just like a public cloud service – such as Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud - but exist entirely within an enterprise's firewall. Few "private cloud" products actually recreate the functionality of a public cloud, but a new contender in the market called "Nimbula" has a product that, at the very least, can be called a private cloud without causing eyes to roll.

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Nimbula was founded by Chris Pinkham, who led development of Amazon's EC2, a service that greatly accelerated adoption of cloud computing by offering software developers access to raw computing power over the Internet.

Pinkham's start-up, which is emerging from stealth mode Wednesday and has ex-VMware CEO Diane Greene on the board, has built software that lets businesses create their own Amazon EC2-style cloud by pooling together existing hardware.

Pinkham was an Amazon employee between 2001 and 2006, and was initially in Seattle where he ran network operations.

"Through that experience, I decided there had to be a better way of building and scaling this kind of infrastructure," Pinkham says. He set out to build the service that became EC2, with the idea being "to focus on developers in a way that hadn't been done before," he says. "I initiated it and proposed it, and put the team together that built it. It started off as a reasonably independent project, but ultimately it belonged in the Amazon Web Services family."

Eventually, Pinkham moved back home to Cape Town, South Africa for family reasons, shortly before EC2 was announced to the general public in August 2006. The departure was amicable, and Pinkham says leaving Amazon was the right thing for him to do at the time, even though it was a difficult decision.

"I'm ultimately an entrepreneur, not a big corporate kind of guy," he says. "But in some ways I still regret not having been part of the [Amazon EC2] growth, which has just been phenomenal."

Nimbula – which was called Benguela when the company was in stealth – was founded in late 2008 by Pinkham and Willem van Biljon, who was part of the team that built EC2.

The company has $5.75 million in funding from Sequoia Capital and the virtualization vendor VMware. Former VMware CEO Greene is one of Nimbula's four board members, along with Pinkham, van Biljon, and Sequoia investor Roelof Botha.

The software is called Nimbula Director, and is in beta with about six "large international customers in the financial services, technology and healthcare industries," with general availability planned for the fall of 2010, Nimbula says.

Nimbula Director automatically discovers servers, lays down the virtualization technology and control pane software, automatically organizing the nodes into an EC2-style cloud.

"The build process is ongoing. As new nodes are introduced or retired, those resources are automatically discovered," Pinkham says.

Although Nimbula Director initially integrates with Xen and KVM, the technology is "fundamentally agnostic" and the company is working on integrating with VMware deployments, Pinkham says.

Businesses that use Nimbula Director will be able to offer virtual machine instances in any flavor they like, from Linux to Windows, while setting policies that determine how much compute and storage capacity VMs can consume. Unauthorized access is prevented with a built-in identity and permission system.

Nimbula's announcement explains that the "cloud control software isolates customers from the operational and hardware complexity associated with deploying compute in a static private data center. A RESTful HTTP API provides a simple and comprehensive interface to all aspects of cloud resource control. Cloud resources can also be managed via a command line interface (CLI) and web control panel, built on top of the API. Beneath the virtual data center abstraction sits a physical layer of storage, network and compute hardware managed by multilayer control software. Nimbula integrates a hypervisor (KVM and/or Xen) with node management software on each node to achieve automated deployment and configuration.”

Naturally, workloads that run on Nimbula Director can be moved into the Amazon EC2 cloud if overflow capacity is needed, according to Pinkham. Companies that have large populations of Web developers are Nimbula's most likely customers, he says.

One early customer is CIO Joubert Steyn of the Metropolitan Health Group, a health insurance company in South Africa.

MHG has installed Nimbula on just five physical servers so far, but intends to use the software on its VMware deployment. The company is testing the software out with some of its light healthcare applications and middleware products.

Steyn has not used EC2. "South Africa is still quite bandwidth-constrained," making it difficult to effectively use public cloud computing services," he says. "That's why we looked at some kind of a private product."

It took a week or so to deploy Nimbula, but "once we got it up and running, and configured correctly, the product has performed very well," Steyn says. "It's all the things cloud computing is going to give you – much better resource utilization, resource planning, and the ability to simplify the management of your infrastructure components."

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