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Find your server in the Cloud

William Brogden discusses how you can move all or part of your server load to the Cloud, only pay for services used and not have to waste efforts on any extra hardware.

Not that long ago, operators of a small to medium sized Web site had few choices when trying to balance the need to handle an occasional big demand versus the requirement to keep equipment and electrical costs low. Recently, operating system virtualization has been used to make it easy to bring new servers on line when the demand increases or turn them off when load is low.

So-called "Cloud" computing offers another approach to handling sudden demands. You can move all or part of your server load to the "Cloud", only pay for the actual services used, and not have to mess with any extra hardware.

The Slashdot Effect
If you have ever tried to follow up an interesting news item posted on a high traffic news site like Slashdot and hit a completely unresponsive site, you have encountered the Slashdot Effect. It is simple enough to explain, hitting a site with 100 times the normal number of requests will saturate a server.

A similar effect may occur when a popular game site releases a new update. Servers which can handle normal game traffic slow down when massive update transfers are running. The last time I updated Second Life, I noticed that the update transfer was actually coming from Amazon's Web Services, not the regular Second Life servers!

Amazon's S3 Service
Opening an account with Amazon's Web Services (AWS) gets you a unique public account name plus a private key used for authentication of operations. As I explained in my earlier article on using Amazon's Simple Storage Service (S3) for backup, with an AWS account you can create named "buckets" which can hold files. Public, private, or read-only access to a bucket or file is minutely controlled by an Access Control List (ACL) and request authentication. Your AWS account will be billed $ 0.15 per gigabyte per month for storage. Downloading files by users is billed at $0.17 per gigabyte with decreasing rates for terabyte levels.

Public links to the Cloud
You can avoid the slashdot effect with your big public announcement by putting all or part of the web resource files in Amazon S3 buckets having public access turned on. Here is an example URL to one of my pictures. Note how the bucket name "" is a prefix to the s3 service host name. It is also possible to use the bucket name as part of the request path.

There are numerous tools such as the Firefox S3 organizer plugin and the open source Java based "Cockpit" application that makes it easy to move files to and from S3 buckets and control the access allowed. Note that S3 does not let you move files between buckets or rename them so make sure your file and bucket names are in their final form before uploading.

Controlled access to the Cloud
Amazon S3 provides a mechanism to move a bandwidth requirement from your overloaded server to the cloud while still retaining control over who gets access. Assuming you have a S3 file stored with private access control settings, You can provide limited read-only access to it by means of a temporary url valid for only a short time. Thus your customer can get the resource but the url can not be handed around and used repeatedly.

Constructing a limited time URL
Here are the programming steps required to construct a time limited URL:

  • Construct a string in the canonical form incorporating the public key, bucket, file name, and time limit. Digital signing of the request string requires that it be formatted in the canonical sequence since even a single character difference would create a different signature and cause the S3 service to reject the URL. Fortunately for developers, if the URL is rejected, the error message shows exactly how the string should have been constructed. Note that your system clock time must closely match Amazon's.
  • Using the SHA-1 algorithm, calculate a "Hash Message Authentication Code" (HMAC) combining your private key and the canonical string to create a unique signature as an array of 20 bytes.
  • Using the base64 algorithm encode the signature bytes as a string of printable characters. Some of these characters (+ / and =) are not legal as part of a URL, therefore the following step is necessary.
  • Use the URLencode algorithm to ensure all characters in the signature are legal for use in a URL.
  • Finally, add the Signature attribute to the URL and send the request.

The final URL includes the S3 host, bucket name, file name, public key ID, expiration date and signature. Here is an example (on multiple lines to fit this page.)

When the S3 service responds, the response headers include a Content-type deduced from the file type. S3 also allows you to attach custom header information such as might be required by a complex web service.

Using only standard Java library classes plus a public domain base64 encoding library, and Amazon's S3 code library I was able to implement a simple Java servlet to create limited time URLs. In addition to Java, the Amazon developer's site gives code examples in many different programming languages including Ruby, Silverlight, Python, PHP, Perl, ColdFusion, Visual Basic, and Erlang. Amazon's S3 service is so simple to use and so inexpensive that any web site operator facing a big increase in server demand should consider offloading that demand to the cloud.

Amazon Web Services starting page

Introduction to Amazon Web Services for Java developers

Using Amazon S3 for backup

A Wikipedia article on the "Slashdot Effect"

Amazon Web Services article on configuring S3 to let a small company handle a huge server request load

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