Rackspace exec warns of Amazon lock-in

Copying the APIs of a cloud service isn't sufficient to avoid lock-in, a vendor of a competing cloud service argues

Customers of Amazon Web Services may be unknowingly locking their data and computational logic in with the popular cloud service, making it difficult to move or significantly modify those resources, the president of a competing cloud provider asserted Wednesday.

As cloud computing matures, "people will want to invent and build new features, ones that they then can run anywhere. I think if we just wait around for Amazon to build things, we will have a hard time as an industry," said Lew Moorman, president of hosted service provider Rackspace. "It's not even a criticism of Amazon. What I'm asking for is an open alternative."

Moorman addressed the topic at the GigaOm Structure conference in San Francisco and spoke with IDG News Service after his talk.

Moorman is far from a neutral party. Starting in August, Rackspace will have a full infrastructure-as-a-service offering that competes with that of Amazon. Rackspace, however, uses the open-source OpenStack software, which the company helped build.

Because Rackspace is using OpenStack, Moorman argued, customers can move their data and computational elements to another OpenStack service, one that will soon be offered by Hewlett-Packard, for instance. Also, because OpenStack will soon become a stand-alone open-source project, users may have more input as to the kind of new features that get added, he said.

Generally speaking, "lock-in" in this context describes what happens when a customer builds a computing infrastructure on a particular cloud platform, and it becomes difficult, financially and logistically, to move that data and computational logic in-house or to a competing provider. As a result, the provider may increase prices or let the quality of service diminish, knowing that it's hard for customers to switch to another cloud platform.

While Amazon has not released many details of the software that powers its cloud services, the company has given its blessing to Eucalyptus, another open-source cloud project that replicates the APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) of Amazon Web Services. The idea behind Eucalyptus is that users of AWS could build their own internal clouds with Eucalyptus and move workloads between Amazon's cloud and their own.

Simply replicating the API, however, is not sufficient, Moorman argued. "The problem is the APIs are really just an interface to the real technology. Amazon's [Simple Storage Service] and [Elastic Cloud Compute] are complicated technologies. In order to replicate a world-class cloud, you really have to have the code end-to-end," Moorman said. "People want to think of the cloud as a protocol, but it is a whole technology stack."

"When you're cloning something, you are always playing catch-up. So it is not even a question of technical merit. Though I'm not sure reverse engineering all of Amazon's work is even possible," Moorman said. As an example, he pointed to Eucalyptus' Walrus feature, which replicated Amazon's S3 (Simple Storage Service). Walrus "behaves differently than S3 and scales differently than S3," Moorman said. (Eucalyptus did not respond to inquiries for a response.)

Amazon appears to be the largest provider of cloud services. It recently announced that users have stored more than a trillion objects in its Simple Storage Service (S3).

Launched in 2006, Amazon Web Services provides computing nodes, databases, storage, load balancing and other services, all available on pay-as-you-go pricing plans. It is increasingly being used by large-scale Web service providers such as Pinterest.

Amazon has been sensitive to the issue of lock-in. In April, during a company event in New York, Amazon CTO Werner Vogels addressed the issue, stating that, "If we are not delivering the right quality of services, you should be able to walk away. You, the consumer of these services, should be in full control. That is core to our philosophy."

The problem of lock-in does seem to be a concern at least with some Amazon customers, however.

Jeremy Edberg, who used to be the chief architect at the popular social media site Reddit, and now is the lead cloud reliability engineer at Netflix, admits that both those companies have seen lock-in as a potential issue. Both use Amazon extensively. At the QCon developer's conference in New York this week, Edberg was asked about the subject during a talk.

At Reddit, lock-in "was a huge concern," he said. The service relied on open-source software, so the company could deliberately build its software so that it could be easily moved to another platform if necessary.

Netflix doesn't quite see lock-in as such a large concern, if mostly because it is one of Amazon's largest customers and could have some influence over changes that Amazon makes, Edberg said. Although Netflix still streams movies from its own data center, most of its other operations are on Amazon. "We are fairly locked into Amazon," he admitted. Still, the company would prefer to see more competition in the cloud space.

"We would love to see another viable cloud provider. We would love to use more than one," Edberg said. "Right now, the reason we use [Amazon] is because they provide a much better service than anyone else."

Joab Jackson covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Joab on Twitter at @Joab_Jackson. Joab's e-mail address is Joab_Jackson@idg.com

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