Windows in the cloud: long boot times, other difficulties not seen with Linux

RightScale automates Windows on Amazon EC2, but not without difficulty

Running Windows servers in the Amazon cloud may have just gotten a lot easier, but a project by the management vendor RightScale to improve Windows support shows that people who use the Microsoft operating system in cloud networks face difficulties not seen in the Linux world.  

Moving servers and applications to the cloud certainly reduces internal hardware costs, but it doesn't save IT professionals from the work of managing, updating and patching the virtual servers that run in the cloud. That's why a company like RightScale exists - to simplify the grunt work faced by customers of the Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud, with software-as-a-service that builds and clones virtual servers, performs load balancing, storage backups, and various other automation, reporting and monitoring tasks.

Windows Azure and Amazon EC2 on collision course

RightScale may be an expert in managing cloud-based virtual servers, but the work it does is still time-consuming and tricky. And it turns out that managing Windows instances is more complex than managing Linux ones.

RightScale on Tuesday announced general availability of its support for Windows-based applications, but it took "close to a year" to bring Windows support up to par with Linux support, according to RightScale CTO Thorsten von Eicken.

One aggravating problem von Eicken describes in a blog post is the time it takes to start Windows images when using Amazon's Elastic Block Store data storage service. Windows security requirements are partly to blame, he says.

"It's interesting how the security details of Windows (i.e. the server key) ripple down into the whole boot process, making it take twice as long as it should," von Eicken writes. "The net is that while Linux instance boot times on EC2 have come down from a typical 6-8 minutes back in 2006 to under a minute now when using EBS images the Windows boot times are starting out around 10-15 minutes. Hopefully Microsoft can be sensitized to the notion that fast boot times are an important asset in the cloud because they enable a lot of automation that is very painful if one has to wait so long for additional capacity or replacement servers to come online."

Von Eicken's blog describes the problem in more detail and makes for interesting reading. But this and other problems encountered by RightScale are not blamed entirely on Microsoft.  

According to von Eicken, Windows images often display the wrong clock time because "unlike with stock AWS Linux images, the Windows wall clock is not synchronized to the virtualization host's time and ... the initial NTP [network time protocol] synchronization doesn't always succeed."

"Since performing automation on a server that thinks it's yesterday or tomorrow is a non-starter we concluded that we had to beef up the time synchronization by ensuring that we get an NTP sync before proceeding with any automation and also run our own set of NTP servers so we can ensure our customers always have in-cloud NTP servers available to synchronize with," he writes. "We think this really is part of the famous 'muck / undifferentiated heavy lifting' that Amazon prides itself to take care of, but they politely declined, which is really a shame."

RightScale built 40 Windows images for use in the Amazon cloud, in part because the company had to build separate images for the four EC2 geographical regions in the United States, Europe and Asia-Pacific to satisfy Windows licensing restrictions.

"The friction along the way certainly is higher than with Linux, whether it's from license questions that crop up everywhere to the mechanics that currently require double-booting, but it is totally possible and Microsoft can, if it focuses on it, make it a lot better yet!" von Eicken writes.

In the end, RightScale says its service now supports Windows 2003 and 2008 on par with Linux. It was already possible to launch Windows instances on Amazon, of course, but now RightScale customers will have an easier time managing large numbers of Windows virtual servers in the cloud.

RightScale supports multiple clouds, not just Amazon's, and the company promises that its modular templates allow portability across different networks.

The ultimate goal of cloud computing, to provide scalable, instantaneous access to computing resources and a real choice between cloud providers without any lock-in, is probably years away from being accomplished. The experience of a company like RightScale provides one illustration of the technical challenges involved in making the cloud a viable alternative to traditional data centers.  

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