How to Choose an IaaS Provider

Amazon currently dominates the IaaS provider space, but can it fend off the invasion of tech giants? Here are five IaaS competitors to watch.

Suddenly, IaaS is smoking hot

In the past few months, Google, HP, and Microsoft have announced that they're getting into the IaaS game. Amazon now dominates the space, but can it fend off the invasion of tech giants? Smaller players like Rackspace -- now famous for its OpenStack "cloud operating system" -- and insurgents like Joyent are also intent on a piece of Amazon's pie. In this slideshow, we've stuck with these five players, all of which allow customers to get up and running using a Web form. But other players bear watching, too, such as IBM and its SmartCloud Enterprise and the VMware-centric Terremark Enterprise Cloud, although both require that you engage with a rep rather than perform your own self-service startup.

Amazon strikes back

The collection of products and services offered by Amazon Web Services would fill a small book, from a broad range of EC2 instance types to NoSQL databases to Hadoop/MapReduce services to virtual private cloud capability and a vast software marketplace. And the leader is not standing still. In March 2012, Amazon struck a pre-emptive blow by dropping prices on both its EC2 service and its hourly rates for long-term contract customers. The prices for Reserved Instances, which involve a one-year contract, were sliced by up to a third. Even bigger volume discounts are available, but most of the cuts are intended to entice entry-level customers who could be lured by competitors. And as before, you can take advantage of a year-long free trial.

Azure gives IaaS a chance

When Windows Azure launched in 2010, Microsoft took pains to note how much more PaaS (platform as a service) offered than IaaS. In June 2012, it changed its tune, offering IaaS services clearly intended to compete with Amazon Web Services. The ploy may work, at least for Windows Server shops. Microsoft is also working on a private cloud solution based on new versions of Windows Server (HyperV) and System Center, which should ease the integration of private and public Microsoft clouds. Plus, Windows Azure began as a .Net development platform, so the richness of its app dev resources is unparalleled for Microsoft developers, of course, but Java, Ruby, and many other languages are now also supported, as are Linux instances.

Google opens up at last

Still in "limited preview," Google Compute Engine doesn't have a firm launch date yet, but the basic outlines encourage comparisons with Amazon EC2 -- even though it will take years to catch up with Amazon's feature set. As a jumpstart, Google may turn to partners, as it has to MapR for Hadoop services. Google's main marketing point is "consistent performance," a not-so-subtle dig at Amazon, which has been known to annoy customers with slowdowns. The company will also offer data encryption by default, including data at rest, which should assuage some customers' cloud security concerns. And of course, there's Google App Engine, one of the leading PaaS (platform as a service) offerings on the Web, supporting Python, Java, and Google Go.

HP's hybrid cloud play

Scheduled to emerge from beta on August 2, HP Cloud is built on OpenStack, an open source "cloud operating system" with huge industry momentum. Yes, you will be able to use HP's public cloud as you would Amazon EC2 (although you may want to wait for HP to deploy the Folsom version of OpenStack arriving this fall). But the real ploy here is what HP calls its Converged Cloud. As OpenStack matures, it will be adopted by customers as a private cloud solution, which, if all goes as planned, would make the HP Cloud an extension of customer data centers. The relatively low number of currently available features reflects the immaturity of OpenStack, but that's a fast-moving target.

Joyent takes on the giants

Dozens of smaller players are crowding into the IaaS space, but we decided to shine a light on Joyent for several reasons. As an IaaS contender, it offers a strong feature set that includes auto-scaling, load balancing, and HPC clusters, plus a full set of database features. But the real sizzle comes from Joyent's popular PaaS based on Node.js, an open source server-side JavaScript development environment that's the hottest thing going in the Web dev world. Joyent is also well funded, scoring an $85 million round last January. It has also developed a private cloud stack dubbed SmartDataCenter, which raises the possibility that customers could deploy that stack on premises and integrate closely with Joyent's public cloud.

Rackspace tries harder with OpenStack

The second-largest IaaS provider, Rackspace is now best known as co-creator of OpenStack, an open source "cloud operating system" developed in conjunction with NASA and launched in 2010. Today, Rackspace Cloud is in the process of transitioning from its proprietary IaaS platform to OpenStack. The company has deep roots in the hosting world and claims to have many customers who use a combination of hosted and IaaS cloud solutions. With OpenStack, that hybrid model could extend to customers who run an OpenStack private cloud integrated with Rackspace's forthcoming OpenStack IaaS offering. Why open source technology that could breed new competitive IaaS providers running OpenStack? Rackspace says its superior support will set it apart.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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