Spotlight: Merlin Cloud
First, let's dispel this myth about cloud computing. What is
it, and why is it compatible with free software ethics?
"Cloud computing," unfortunately, is one of the most misunderstood
terms in the recent history of computing. Literally, it has a million
different definitions to a million different people. I like to think
of cloud computing simply as an abstraction: a system that provides
methods for requesting and utilizing computing resources without
having to know anything about the underlying systems providing them.
Primarily, cloud computing is about (a) aggregating server, network,
and storage resources into a seemingly contiguous system ("the
cloud"), (b) providing some kind of interface for the user to request
or release these resources, and (c) making these resources network or
location agnostic, so that the resources are accessible from anywhere,
even in the face of system or network failures.
I agree that there are many ethical considerations with "the cloud,"
especially in its current invocation by larger corporations. However,
their cloud need not be ours; it is becoming more and more possible to
use free software to build clouds that respect free software ethics
and don't require a user to compromise on their freedoms or privacy.
For instance, one could imagine a GNU cloud which only ran free
software, and had strong privacy and data protection safeguards, but
provided users the same type of experience they might expect from
Amazon's EC2. This kind of vision is entirely possible.
Okay, so what's Merlin? Give me the 30-second overview...
Primarily, Merlin is a Ruby on Rails application that I created as a
way of interacting and controlling EC2 API-compatible clouds. This can
mean Amazon AWS, which has many significant ethical concerns, but it
can also mean something like Eucalyptus/UEC (the GPLv3-licensed
version), or other free software which provides similar services.
Merlin allows you to quickly request the creation of new virtual
machines and storage volumes, and can also assist in provisioning them
(getting them ready to do real work). It handles a lot of details in
the background (such as Puppet certificate signing, BIND dynamic DNS
updates, etc.) and aims to make day-to-day cloud operations as easy as
a couple of clicks. It also aims to provide a free software option versus
the proprietary software or closed web services that are used to
interface and interact with clouds today.
What technologies are used to make Merlin work?
As I said, Merlin is a Ruby on Rails project. I actually used the
project as an excuse to learn Ruby/Rails, as I had only used Django or
Zope in the past. Underneath the hood, it uses ActiveMQ to pass
messages between the front end and the back end, and of course a whole
basket of Ruby gems. Merlin also assumes that you are using Puppet to
provision your systems.
What can developers who are interested in Merlin do to help it
Merlin, primarily, needs more attention. It works for me, in my
environment; it would be helpful if others would try using it. It
really needs better packaging and documentation: it isn't as simple as
installing it and clicking a few things. It also needs quite a bit of
work on its UI, and I am hoping to get it to a beta release where a
lot of the basic functionality will be a bit more implemented than it
is now. In the future, Merlin will support spawning entire groups of
machines, or entire self-contained systems, within the cloud. I would
also like Merlin to be API-agnostic, and support a wide variety of
cloud software. All that being said, the software is available today,
so anyone who wants to hack on it can do so.
We've seen some rather gloomy-looking options from big companies
who are talking up the cloud as the solution to all our problems. What
can Merlin do to give people some flexibility without requiring them
to give up their control?
Primarily, the real issue with the pervasiveness of clouds with
ethical issues for users is simply that they are there, and they are
the only real option unless you are looking very carefully. The
average user isn't yet aware of the traps and pitfalls involved in
using cloud services, and is very much attracted to the ease of use
and simplicity that the cloud promises -- especially the idea of their
files or data being available "everywhere." Unfortunately, this
simplicity comes with a price -- it is inherently linked to an
expropriation of freedom and privacy which becomes harder and harder
to reverse the more one relies on the corporate clouds.
To my knowledge, no one has attempted to build a large, scalable free
software cloud that inherently respects the freedom and privacy of its
users. I sincerely hope Merlin can be helpful in this regard, even if
it is only to encourage communities of users to build their own small
private clouds instead of always using the big companies.
How do you use Merlin?
We use it internally to provision new virtual machines within our
private cloud. Merlin will then provision these instances and even
register them automatically in DNS. It makes the rapid creation of
large numbers of provisioned virtual machines particularly quick and
easy, which I would say is a general, if unwritten, expectation of
Syndicated 2011-10-18 19:31:39 from fsf