Programming for Cloud Computing: What's Different

Web developers who want to (or must) embrace cloud computing need to learn more than a few new tools. Experts explain the skills you need to hone.

The "cloud computing" label is applied to several technologies, and is laden with vendor and industry hype. Yet underneath it all, most of us acknowledge that there's something to all this stuff about utility computing and whatever-as-a-service.

The distinction is especially important to software developers, who know that the next-big-thing is apt to have an impact on their employability. Savvy, career-minded programmers are always trying to improve their skill sets, preparing for the next must-have technology.

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What's different about cloud computing, compared to "regular" web development? If a programmer wants to equip herself to take advantage of the cloud in any of its myriad forms -- Software as a Service (SaaS), Platform as a Service (PaaS), or Infrastructure as a Service (Iaas) -- to what technologies should she pay attention? If your company has traditionally done web development but is planning to adopt the cloud in a big way, what unique skill sets should you look for? The learning curve can be even more bewildering because the concerns of a SaaS developer may be very different from one who's using a virtual development environment, yet the industry treats "the cloud" as if it's one monolithic technology.

"Developing applications in the cloud is a little like visiting Canada from America. Most everything is the same, but there are small differences that you notice and need to accommodate."

David J. Jilk, Standing Cloud

For advice, I turned to experienced developers and vendors (the techies who lie awake at night agonizing about these issues, not the marketing people).

Here, therefore, is an overview of the things to pay attention to as you explore the cloud, including tools, scalability, security, architecture design, and expanding infrastructure knowledge.

Know Your Tools

Let's get the easy item out of the way first. Moving to the cloud probably requires you to learn new APIs, such as those for the Google App Engine,, or whichever software your application will depend on. For most developers, learning a new API, poking at a new database tool, or exploring a new open source platform is a regular occurrence, though you do need to budget time for it.

And, while some development tools have extensions to permit deployment in the cloud, programmers have to learn those features. "In the case of Microsoft SQL Azure, there are technical challenges beyond a 'regular' web development environment," says Alpesh Patel, director of engineering at Ektron. You might have to come up to speed on sparse columns, extended stored procedures, Service Broker, or Common Language Runtime (CLR) and CLR User-Defined Types.

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