AWS and Rackspace are both giants of the cloud infrastructure services arena. Although to paraphrase George Orwell’s famous novella, all cloud providers are not created equal. So let’s take a closer look at our pugilists before placing bets or declaring the winner.
Amazon Web Services (AWS) is a subsidiary of Internet juggernaut Amazon. AWS proper rolled out in 2006, and has grown at astonishing speed to quickly become the market leader in IaaS / PaaS. The EC2 service is a major part of this success story, allowing users to quickly choose from a range of virtual servers. But that’s not all: Amazon also offers the following services as part of AWS:
- Storage (with the S3 & Glacier products).
- Databases (RDS, RedShift, SimpleDB, DynamoDB).
- Networking (Route 53, VPC).
- Deployment & Configuration Management (OpsWorks, Elastic Beanstalk, CloudFormation).
- Content Delivery (CloudFront).
- Load balancing.
- Application development platforms.
AWS is huge. Massive. Gigantic. To illustrate its crushingly superior dominance in the IaaS market, an August 2013 study found that its cloud operation is over 5 times larger than the next 12 largest competitors. Combined! (source http://www.networkworld.com/news/2013/082013-gartner-amazon-273005.html?hpg1=bn). Amazon data centers are located in 9 regions around the world, 3 in the US and the rest around the world. A tenth one is coming up in China exclusively for that market and will be completely isolated from the others to placate Chinese concerns about US government snooping. Amazon is also creating the so-called GovCloud for use as a U.S. government cloud. Given AWS' market share and overarching presence in the cloud space, we've created a 2-part post on implementing GuardRail with AWS EC2, so be sure to check it out.
Rackspace Cloud is much smaller than AWS. Although exact figures are hard to come by – cloud vendors don’t make this information publicly available for strategic reasons – their sizes can be compared from their profits: in Q1 2013 about $27 million for Rackspace, vs. $415 million for AWS. Rackspace cloud was also born in 2006, and has 7 large data centers throughout the world. It offers the following generic-sounding services:
- Cloud Servers: Comparable to EC2. This is the brand name for a combined cloud service for server computing solutions.
- Cloud Tools: the combined name for applications and services to run on Cloud Servers. So for instance if you need a PHP stack there is Zend, for performance testing there is Cloudkick, for app monitoring there is CopperEgg, for a MySQL database there is Xeround, and so on.
- Cloud Sites: this is a PaaS offering, giving access to a bundled infrastructure setup. So for instance if you need a website host server with a web server, database and email service, you pay a fixed monthly amount for all these as a unit/ bundle.
In 2012 Rackspace announced that Cloud Servers would be implemented on OpenStack. This is an open-source platform for defining cloud-based services.
With their bewildering array of services, direct comparisons between the two can be difficult. So let’s look at the two most important components – compute and storage. They seem to be closely matched in terms of pricing – knowing how competitive the IaaS market is, this is not a coincidence. Overall though, AWS is cheaper, though this comes with some caveats as explained below. And Amazon is also fond of regular price reductions – the business model for AWS seems to be thin-margin, high-volume.
A closer look reveals that in terms of computing (EC2 vs. Cloud Servers), AWS is much more flexible than Rackspace. In EC2 you can mix and match components from the server stack and pay for each independently, but in Rackspace’s Cloud Servers you are mostly limited to a choice of bundled services with fixed prices. And AWS offers a ‘Free Usage Tier’ for new customers; you get a small ‘starter’ server, but you must still first provide your credit card details. EC2 charges range from free to about $6.80 per hour (http://aws.amazon.com/ec2/pricing/). Cloud Server pricing ranges from $0.04 to $6.80 per hour (http://www.rackspace.com/cloud/servers/pricing/).
When you look at storage, the comparison is less clear. Rackspace seems to offer a better deal for SME’s, with good deals for middle-of-the-road servers. AWS seems to offer great deals mainly for the low-end and very high end of the markets, so either for individuals and tiny startups, or for large corporations. AWS also curiously charges customers for both the amount of I/O activity and for the total amount of storage reserved, regardless of whether they actually use it or not. This is an outrage! Rackspace only charges you for the amount of storage you actually use, and no charge for I/O activity.
Performance & Availability
Performance is one area where Rackspace Cloud Server has a massive advantage over AWS EC2. Both objective 3rd party reviewers and subjective anecdotal evidence indicate that in all measures, Rackspace is a few multiples faster than AWS. This is true even across different server configs. For example, one study found that Rackspace is 2.3 computationally faster than EC2, and has 2.8 times faster I/O.
As for availability, AWS has suffered at least 3 major, high-profile outages in various data centers since 2011 (http://www.networkworld.com/news/2012/102212-amazon-ebs-263592.html). This is a huge blow to Amazon’s reputation. But wait, it gets even worse. You see, Amazon is the poster-child for enterprise cloud computing, so such outages give ammo to cloud computing’s detractors and cause hesitation and doubt for those considering moving their servers to the cloud. We’re not done. Adding even more salt to this cloudy wound are the reports of high-profile, high-traffic websites rendered inaccessible by these blackouts – the likes of GitHub, Reddit, Imgur, Foursquare, Pinterest. Amazon badly needs to up its game in this area.
Rackspace gleefully and publicly exploits these embarrassing Amazon service outages to hammer home the point that AWS is just too big to be reliable any more, and to tactfully position itself as the smaller, stable alternative. It also shrewdly reminds customers that with the open-source OpenStack, they will not run the danger of getting locked in to a vendor stack, knowing that Amazon cannot promise the same with its proprietary stack. Nevertheless, Rackspace cloud has also suffered its own outage gremlins in the past, but these seemed to have been sorted out by 2010.
Amazon has scored a coup in this regard. It has managed to entice over 400,000 developers around the world to create products and apps for AWS. Amazon quickly and early on provided the necessary components such as java SDK’s, PHP, Python, .NET languages to developers so they could create custom products for AWS. Competitors such as Rackspace are only belatedly catching up, and they have an uphill battle because AWS’s dominance. It’s going to be difficult to convince developers to switch to a new platform that’s not as big or as lucrative for them as AWS.
So, if you have to choose between AWS and Rackspace, keep in mind that they are both Tier-1 choices - large and (mostly) stable. They also offer competitive pricing to lure you away from another capital server purchase and into the cloud. They each have their strong and weak points, so look carefully at both offerings and determine which one fits in best with your needs. The pros-cons chart below will also help.
To see how AWS and Rackspace stack up against other leading cloud providers, check out our cloud service provider roundup. Or brave the tarpits with us as we test AWS permissions and encounter some strange behavior.