Take in the big cloud picture with this comprehensive text

Nick Hardiman says a new cloud sysadmin reference book might help improve communication amongst various teams and lead to work becoming more effective.

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A trio of heavyweight professionals wrote a cloud computing textbook called "The Practice of Cloud System Administration." Covering all cloud infrastructure topics from application architecture to operational excellence, this could become the cloud computing equivalent of the medical textbook "Gray's Anatomy."

This work is the collected brainpower of authors Thomas Limoncelli, Strata Chalup, and Christina Hogan, who have been there, seen that, done it, and written the book — well, another textbook, called "The Practice of System and Network Administration." This earlier technical reference book was a classic sysadmin textbook of the naughties. The two books are a series — the system administration book has been updated to form volume one, and this new cloud administration book is volume two.

Everything is connected

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"The Practice of Cloud System Administration" is a book that is as big as its title. This 500-page reference is a full kilo of authoritative reference material ready for assimilation by cloud administrators. "Gray's Anatomy" has grown and changed over the decades as the frontiers of medical science spread — the current edition is over 1,500 pages. Perhaps "The Practice of Cloud System Administration" will balloon in size over the coming editions.

The book's title highlights an issue with the new cloud computing world — the authors avoid the use of the words "cloud computing" because it is a marketing term. They stick with the more concrete technical label of "distributed computing" instead.

The authors have collected current cloud computing wisdom that is tied as close as it can be to the real world. The first six chapters focus on design and are followed by a dozen chapters about operations and then appendices on history, scaling, and further reading. The aim is to give a comprehensive view of cloud administration. It's a book that can give all technical staff a basic understanding of the big cloud picture. For instance, the book states operational staff must understand the development process, and developers must take part in out-of-hours support so they feel the pain of the operations.

Why a lack of fine detail is important

"Gray's Anatomy" has been the anatomical authority for over a century. "Gray's Anatomy" has been in use for so long by professionals employed to prod and probe the human body that its name carries a weight on its own. A popular TV drama series rides on its fame: "Grey's Anatomy." That's "Grey's," not "Gray's." Spot the subtle change.

"Gray's Anatomy" goes into great detail about parts of the human body, but "The Practice of Cloud System Administration" does not go into great detail about cloud computing components. It can't. The "Gray's Anatomy" authors have the advantage that the human body is not a fast-moving target. While medical science regularly discovers more about the human body, it is not known for growing new organs and rearranging its limbs every few years.

"The Practice of Cloud System Administration" avoids hands-on how-to instructions and the details of individual products. The book does not contain code snippets, API descriptions, and configuration files. "The Practice of Cloud System Administration" is a long-term reference work rather than a book that will be out of date by the time it hits the bookshops.

The book does contain descriptions, diagrams, and references. For instance, "The Practice of Cloud System Administration" describes the message bus — the application equivalent of a network switch and a favourite of geographically dispersed organizations — in a few pages (4.6 Message Bus Architectures). The book mentions a few products in passing — Amazon SQS, Google Pub/Sub2, and RabbitMQ — and directs readers who want more information to a book on enterprise integration.

You don't have to like all of it

The reader doesn't have to treat this book as the new Bible of Cloud Computing — there is no absolute truth in the ever-changing world of computing. Each sysadmin's view is unique in many small ways.

Some readers may think the division of devops strategies into "Workflow," "Improve Feedback," and "Continual Experimentation" is inaccurate (8.2 The Three Ways of DevOps). They may be unable to accept yet more examples of how Netflix does it (15.3.2 Random Testing). They may even think "O()" notation is a toy for sysadmins who like to play with mathematics (Appendix C.2 Big O Notation).

Some readers may not appreciate the Google references. "The Practice of Cloud System Administration" is a little slanted to a Google view of the world — many anecdotes are in the form of "This one time, at Google, Tom did stuff." If you want to gain distributed computing insight, you may as well get it from the world leader, but this does make the book a little more "Google's Anatomy" than "Gray's Anatomy."

Even if readers are skeptical about parts of the book, they will still find it useful. The book provides an end-to-end view that everyone in the cloud computing world can use to communicate and collaborate.

Inspiration for a cloud-themed TV series?

The value of "The Practice of Cloud System Administration" is in its comprehensive coverage of cloud computing. If a team of project managers, developers, and system administrators improve their communication using this book as a reference, work will become more effective and misunderstandings less damaging.

How popular will this cloud administration book become? Will we watch "Cloud System Edministration" the soap opera? Which famous stars will play the roles of the dashing authors? Time will tell.

About Nick Hardiman

Nick Hardiman builds and maintains the infrastructure required to run Internet services. Nick deals with the lower layers of the Internet - the machines, networks, operating systems, and applications. Nick's job stops there, and he hands over to the ...

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