Why I Abandoned the Rackspace Cloud

Rackspace Cloud

As many of you know, I'm a huge proponent of on-demand computing as I believe it's the best starting point for most early stage web startups. Cloud computing allows a venture to substitute high initial capital expenditures for operating expenses that grow proportional to your traction. Equally important is its ability to flexibility scale and retract with the ebb and flow of your business. While it may make sense at a later stage to move to your own data center as you look to optimize costs, it rarely should be a priority in the tumultuous early days when you are still searching for product/market fit.

At my previous startup Anywhere.FM, we were an early adopter of Amazon Web Services in 2007. I've continued to be an early adopter of next generation cloud platforms as I'm always interested in understanding the bleeding edge innovations. Last year I initially saw a lot of promise in Google App Engine, but ultimately chose to abandon it due to its shortcomings. Just recently I tried the Rackspace Cloud, which is shaping up to be the fiercest competitor against AWS. I thought I'd share my experience with you.

What Attracted Me
Rackspace is not shy about looking to compete aggressively against AWS. They offer on their website a detailed head-to-head comparison with Amazon's EC2. While they suggest a variety of reasons why you might choose Rackspace over EC2, there was one specific advantage that caught my eye and ultimately led me to run a full-scale test on Rackspace. It was the fact that Rackspace offers cheaper low-end server instances that may be all you need for certain tasks. While Amazon's cheapest instance starts at $63.24/mo (1.7GB RAM) for continuous running, Rackspace's cheapest instance starts at $10.95/mo (256MB RAM). For certain tasks that are not CPU or memory-bound but instead network bound, the low-end Rackspace instances may be sufficient and cost effective. Given this fit the characteristics of my workload, I decided to shift some of my resources to Rackspace. I ultimately expanded to a farm of 8 low-end Rackspace instances for a full month.

Why I Abandoned
Given that I've been on Amazon Web Services for years now, my expectations for a cloud platform are high. And unfortunately the Rackspace Cloud ended up falling short for my needs.

Unreliable Boxes
One drawback that completely surprised me was the lack of reliability of the servers. This shocked me given Rackspace's long history of being the underpinnings of some of the internet's largest sites even before they launched their cloud offering. But I regularly would receive e-mails like the following:

This message is to inform you that the host server your Cloud Server 'cloud-512-2' is on became unresponsive at 10:15 PM CST today. As a result we have scheduled a reboot to occur on the physical host server and will investigate the issue. If the problem arises again we will proceed with a hardware swap to maintain the integrity of your data.

I received 13 such required reboot notifications during the 33 days that I had instances live on Rackspace! Talk about a maintenance nightmare!

Limitations on OS Images
Rackspace also has some pretty restrictive limitations on backups and images created on instances. First, a backup of an instance is always tied to a particular instance. So say for example you setup and installed all the appropriate software like I did on one instance. Then you took a backup of that instance so that you could deploy additional servers based on the backup. Today you cannot delete the instance from which the backup was created because if you were to do so, you'll lose the backup! So as long as you want to create future instances based on that image, that instance has to live on. This is due to the strong coupling of servers and backups.

Related to this issue is the fact that you cannot share images with others. This means that any software you want on the box you have to install yourself instead of potentially taking advantage of someone else's work.

This is in contract to Amazon's strong Amazon Machine Image ecosystem. I personally use the great CentOS images from RightScale. This is just not possible on Rackspace.

While Rackspace does plan on addressing both of these issues, they have a ways to go to catch up with Amazon.

No Elastic Storage
The amount of disk that you can have associated with a given Rackspace server instance is based on the server instance package. So if you require more disk space, you'll have to upgrade to a larger instance size and resize your server. While this does mirror most hosting providers, it falls short of the compelling offering of Elastic Block Storage that Amazon provides. Elastic Block Storage is completely resizable persistent storage that can be attached to any Amazon instance, with easy backup, redundancy, and re-attachment to\from different instances. It's great for storing the data files for a database server, for example, and allowing it to grow as necessary. I definitely missed this when I was on the Rackspace cloud.

Bandwidth Costs
Much of my workload involves making requests to third party APIs or scraping web pages. This results in significant network bandwidth both into the box and out of the box.

Currently Amazon is more price competitive on this front. AWS is currently offering completely free data transfer into EC2 instances for the first half of 2010. Compare that to Rackspace's $0.08/GB. In addition, EC2 charges $0.15/GB transferred out, versus Rackspace's higher $0.22/GB transferred out.

For these reasons I have ultimately decided to abandon the Rackspace Cloud. While none of them were deal breakers themselves, there wasn't enough compelling reason to move my infrastructure away from AWS.

What I'll Miss
Despite abandoning the Rackspace Cloud, there are definitely some aspects I will miss.

Fanatical Support
Rackspace doesn't lie when they say they have fanatical support. Because they really do. I signed up for Rakcspace at midnight on the weekend and I still received a friendly call from a Rackspace agent to confirm my identity and ask me if I had any questions about the service. And this wasn't an offshore calling center either. It was a very knowledgeable American representative.

Similarly, they have always available Live Chat that I have taken advantage of on multiple occasions. Why waste time digging through forums to try to find an answer to your question when you can ask extremely helpful and expert chat support staff immediately? Compare this to AWS, which charges significant additional fees for that level of support.

Easy Backups
While the server backup system does have its limitation, it was refreshingly easy to setup. Just tell it in the control panel to backup daily and you are all set! Compare it to the details in this article for getting reliable backups on AWS.

Instance Names
Something so basic that was again very refreshing was the ability to provide easy to remember names for your server instances. AWS can be frustrating at times to look at the Control Panel and simply see instance IDs like i-462e3b1e, leaving you wondering what exactly is running on the instance.

While I have decided to abandon the Rackspace Cloud and stick with AWS, I'm sure I'll be re-evaluating Rackspace as it matures. Nonetheless I'm excited to see strong competition in the marketplace since it forces all cloud providers to continue to innovate. I expect to continue to see significant advancements in the space from all the major vendors as they evolve.
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