Review: Rackspace Cloud keeps IaaS simple

Rackspace stands apart with familiar tools, open standards, and enterprise-grade support

Rackspace was one of the first players in the cloud arena. The company recognized early that enterprises wanted faster, simpler ways to spin up and spin down servers. If the bosses are going to be fickle and impulsive, there will always be a market for companies that make it easy for the people curating the data to pivot. If the corporate vision is going to morph, the IT shops will want a way to morph with it.

At Rackspace, the meaning of "cloud" has always been a bit simpler and more straightforward, and the philosophy a bit more open and pragmatic, than at other cloud providers. While some of the others spun elaborate metaphors, abstracted away the old files, and portrayed the opaqueness of their mechanism as a feature, Rackspace sold real instances that felt more like real computers. From the beginning, Rackspace's cloud was just a fast way to buy extra machines for an hour, then turn them off.

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Lately the company has been adding new products and features to create what it calls the Next Gen cloud. You can still access the First Gen cloud and use the original cloud software, but it won't offer all of the new features such as better data storage, public IPv6 support, and the ability to change a server's metadata.

Rackspace Cloud: The next generationWhile there are many new features, Rackspace is still largely selling machines (virtual machines, to be more precise), but now you can glue them together in a few additional ways. The data can be squirreled away in either block storage or containers, two abstractions that aren't permanently glued to the servers. For MySQL users, Rackspace has built a stripped-down and tuned machine image that delivers better performance. The company has also provided off-the-shelf load balancers and backup; adding these features has become much simpler.

Rackspace has also upgraded the machine choices and in one sense lowered the price. The First Gen cloud offered (and still offers) old, anemic machines with just 256MB of RAM and a monthly cost of $10.95, but that bargain-basement offering is gone from the Next Gen cloud. The low-end machines in the Next Gen cloud now come with 512MB of RAM, 20GB of disk space, one virtual CPU, and a monthly cost of $16.06. Bargain users are grousing about the increased cost of running very lightly taxed machines, but those using the larger machines will see prices dropping. A first-generation machine with 512MB of RAM costs 3 cents per hour, while a second-generation machine with 512MB of RAM costs only 2.2 cents per hour.

You're not just paying for RAM with the next generation. The larger, more-expensive machines with 2GB of RAM or more now come with additional virtual CPUs that go along with the extra storage. By the time you're purchasing 30GB of RAM for $876.60 per month, Rackspace is tossing in eight virtual CPUs with the package. You get more power for your money too.

From CentOS to Ubuntu, all of the usual suspects are available for creating a Linux or BSD machine.

The biggest change in the second generation is the file storage that can now live separately from your servers. In the past, the instances were more like real boxes. If you wanted to get the data on and off the machines, it was up to you. Now Rackspace offers storage blocks that are configured separately from your virtual machine. They're mounted like an external disk drive, and you can use them to read and write data apart from your server image.

The block storage API is pretty transparent. After I pushed the button to create the block storage and attach it to my server, I needed to partition, format, and mount the space using the operating system. It's like attaching a storage device to your own physical machine. You get to push the buttons yourself.

Rackspace also offers a very fast SSD option if you want to pay for a bit more speed. The old-fashioned SATA storage is 15 cents per gigabyte per month, while the solid-state storage is 70 cents per gigabyte per month. If you need only a small amount of fast storage, it's a good choice.

There are hints that Rackspace is embracing some of the more amorphous visions for the cloud. If your data needs to reach a wide audience, you can have a slice of Akamai's Content Distribution Network called CloudFiles. You store your data in CloudFiles and Akamai will deliver it faster. Storage is 10 cents per gigabyte per month, while outgoing bandwidth is 18 cents per gigabyte.

The OpenStack advantageRackspace was one of the main forces behind OpenStack, and the company continues to make the flexibility of the open source cloud stack one of its big selling points. Your enterprise won't be locked into the Rackspace cloud because you can always set up OpenStack in your own data center -- if and when you want to leave Rackspace behind. This flexibility is crucial for many businesses because rewriting code can be quite a pain, especially if it's older code that someone wrote long ago before quitting.

Rackspace brags that it's not just offering you a separate fork of OpenStack, but the actual code running on its cloud machines. "The software is not a separate distribution of OpenStack, so you don't have to worry about a branching dead end," promises the Rackspace website. This is quite an offer and one that's designed to prey on any enterprise manager's worst fears of vendor lock-in.

Rackspace also pushes hybrid architectures that make it possible for you to link up your private cloud with the Rackspace cloud for moments when you need more servers. One customer, for instance, says it turns on servers in the public cloud whenever it runs major ad campaigns. When the traffic surge is over, the website retreats to the private cloud. Running the same OpenStack layer in your data center makes it simpler to do this.

Rackspace is taking a different approach to storing data. While Amazon, Google, HP, and a few others are building elaborate NoSQL abstraction layers that promise elastic scalability, Rackspace is sticking with MySQL, the decades-old, tried-and-true solution to storing information.

You can choose between disk storage and faster SSD when you create a block of storage that can be mounted on your virtual machine.

This is a great solution for developers with any legacy code. It's easy to fire up a new project and begin with a fun, new NoSQL storage engine when you're starting with a blank sheet of paper, but it's much harder to take running code and convert it. I was able, for instance, to get Drupal up and running in less than five minutes because Drupal relies upon MySQL to store all of the data. I didn't need to rewrite the Drupal code to work with some new object or document store. There was no weird glue code or translation architecture. I just started up a MySQL database and pointed the Drupal code at the URL.

The separate MySQL option came around because the engineers at Rackspace listened to customer complaints that the performance of databases often wasn't as good as it could be. The virtualization layer used in clouds like these added delays in writing and reading from the I/O, a factor for operations like running a database. The device driver for your virtual machine won't write directly to the disk, but will shove the data into shared memory and wait for the underlying machine OS to actually write it to storage. That may be an acceptable price to pay for some applications, but not for code that lives to store data to a hard disk.

Rackspace's solution is to eliminate some of the hardware and operating system layers, which the company calls "container-based virtualization." You can't log into your MySQL database server and configure the underlying OS. You get only a URL and a MySQL user password; all of your interaction happens as a MySQL user, not as a regular Unix user.

Protecting your cloud dataRackspace has added extra redundancy out of sight. The version of MySQL isn't running on any old machine, but writing to a SAN with RAID hardware. Rackspace then enables further protection by copying the data to other machines on the network. All of this replication happens at the hardware or network level, not with MySQL. Rackspace doesn't currently use the MySQL replication code, although it promises to offer that in the future. The company also promises to offer yet another layer of protection, an automated backup tool for taking snapshots of your database. 

The cloud is a bit of a departure for Rackspace, at least given the price. The company built its name on offering great hand-holding support at premium prices. While the cloud instances are priced like commodities, you can still spend money if you need to. If you want to purchase a Cloud Site, one of the products sitting next to the regular cloud servers, it will cost $150 a month. That's dramatically more than the $5 per month that some low-cost providers charge for website hosting, but it includes Rackspace's trademarked "fanatical support." A Cloud Site also comes with fixed limits on bandwidth and storage, which the low-cost servers pretend don't exist when they claim it's all unlimited. Of course the low-cost sites are fibbing -- nothing is unlimited.

There are a number of other ways to buy premium products or premium support. All the cloud machines are available with Rackspace support under a separate tab called Managed Cloud. Almost every product Rackspace offers at a commodity price is also available with hand-holding for more money. If your operation doesn't have the expertise inside or you just want to arrange for an additional layer of people who can assist, you can sign up for support. Even if you're building your own private cloud using Rackspace's open source set of tools, Rackspace will offer to help you from afar.

This is the corner of the IT world that Rackspace has chosen: high-quality support married with commodity hardware and open systems. The company's sales literature pushes the idea that you should "Stay because you want to, not because you have to." The next generation of the Rackspace cloud offers more features and more options, but it stays true to this basic plan. It's more like running your own servers, the kindly Linux boxes you've grown accustomed to, and less like buying into a newfangled religion.

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