Review: Google Compute Engine rocks the cloud

Google's new compute cloud offers a crisp and clean way to spin up Linux instances and easily tap other Google APIs

You're sitting around. You have some computing to do. Ten years ago, you would ask your boss to buy a rack or two of computers to churn through the data. Today, you just call up the cloud and rent the systems by the minute. This is the market that Google is now chasing by packaging up time on its racks of machines and calling it the Google Compute Engine.

Google took its sweet time entering this corner of the cloud. While Amazon, Rackspace, and others started off with pay-as-you-go Linux boxes and other "infrastructure" services, Google began with the Google App Engine, a nice stack of Python that held your hand and did much of the work for you. Now Google is heading in the more general direction and renting raw machines too. The standard distro is Ubuntu 12.04, but CentOS instances are also available. And you can store away your own custom image once you configure it.

[ Move over, Amazon -- IaaS providers are elbowing into the cloud. See how they compare in InfoWorld's slideshow. | Get the no-nonsense explanations and advice you need to take real advantage of cloud computing in the InfoWorld editors' "Cloud computing in 2012" PDF special report. | Stay up on the cloud with InfoWorld's Cloud Computing Report newsletter. ]

Google's big selling point

Why rent machines from Google instead of Amazon or Rackspace or some other IaaS provider? Google claims its raw machines are cheaper. This is a bit hard to determine with any precision because not everyone is selling the same thing despite claims of computing becoming a commodity. Google sells its machines by the Google Compute Engine Unit (GCEU), which it estimates is about a 1GHz to 1.2GHz Opteron from 2007.

All of Google's machines rent for 5.3 cents per GCEU per hour, but that isn't really what you pay. The smallest machine you can rent from Google today, the so-called n1-standard-1-d, goes for 14.5 cents per hour. That's because the n1-standard-1-d -- which comes with one virtual core, 3.75GB of RAM, and 420GB of disk space -- is equivalent to 2.75 GCEUs, according to Google. You can get machines with two, four, and eight virtual cores all at the same price per GCEU.

These numbers are bound to evolve soon according to a member of the Google Compute Engine team. The product is said to be in "limited preview," and as it grows more polished, the company will probably experiment with adding more options with more or less power.

Is 5.3 cents per GCEU a good deal? It depends upon what you want to do with your machine. Rackspace prices its machines by the amount of RAM you get. It has stopped selling the anemic 256MB RAM VMs, but rents its 512MB boxes at only 2.2 cents per hour or $16.06 per month. If you want a machine with 4GB from Rackspace, it will cost you 24 cents each hour, about $175 per month. 

Is that a better deal? If your computation doesn't need the RAM, a basic instance from Rackspace is much cheaper. Even if the CPU might not be as powerful, you would be better off with a cheaper machine. But I suspect many will need fatter machines because modern operating systems suck up RAM like a blue whale sucks up krill.

Google Compute Engine gives you a clean, Google-esque Web dashboard
Google Compute Engine gives you a clean, Google-esque Web dashboard to create instances, assign them to zones, and monitor their status. So far, you can choose from Ubuntu and CentOS images.

After you get past the differences over RAM and disk space, the Google machines are meant to be essentially the same as the machines from Amazon or Rackspace -- or even the machines you might buy on your own. Like Amazon and Rackspace, Google makes it easy to start off with Ubuntu; after that, you're talking to Ubuntu, not Google's code. There are differences in the startup and shutdown mechanisms, but these aren't substantial. More substantial is Google's inability to snapshot persistent storage, as you can in Amazon, but Google promises this is coming soon.

If you're migrating from Amazon or Rackspace, you'll need to rewrite your scripts because the APIs are full of linguistic differences, even if they offer most of the same features.

Google Compute Engine ins and outs

Another big part of the equation is bandwidth. Google doesn't charge for ingress, but it has a fairly complicated model for egress. Shipping data to a machine in the same zone in the same region is free, but shipping it to a different zone in the same region is one penny per gigabyte. Then the cost for letting the data "egress" to the Internet depends upon whether it's going to the Americas/EMEA or the APAC (Asia and the Pacific). For what it's worth, egressing the data to some website visitor from the APAC is almost twice as expensive as egressing it to someone in the United States. The costs are set on a sliding scale with discounts for big egressers.

While the complexity of the pricing table will send the purchasing managers to their calculators, it's interesting what Google is trying to do with this scheme. By making intermachine communications free, Google is no doubt banking on people using the racks in the same zones to actually work together on solving problems. In other words, Google is giving us the tools for stitching together our own supercomputers.

In general, Google is doing a good job of making some of the dangers of the cloud apparent. Like compute instances in Amazon, Rackspace, and other IaaS clouds, each Google instance comes with "ephemeral disk," a name that makes the storage sound more fragile than it really is. Keep in mind that the file system that comes with your cloud computer -- be it on Amazon, Rackspace, or Google -- is not backed up in any way unless you code some backup routines yourself. You can run MySQL on your cloud box, but the database won't survive the failure of your machine, so you better find a way to keep a copy somewhere else too.

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