Microsoft’s Azure and Rackspace Cloud are two competitors in the hotly contested cloud computing market. Other large players are Amazon’s AWS and Google’s Compute Engine.
The colossus in this market is of course Amazon. Its dominant shadow looms large over the whole cloud computing marketspace, so it’s no surprise that competitors are forced into specialization and differentiation of their offerings so they can compete with Amazon’s low, low prices and massive resources. Rackspace tries to differentiate itself by its excellent support and customer service, dubbed ‘Fanatical Support’, in addition to hosting everything on OpenStack - the open source hosting and technology stack. Windows Azure is obviously attractive to the large Windows segment. Windows-centric developers and IT environments will take great comfort in using a cloud environment that is also part of the Microsoft family. That said, Microsoft has worked hard to ensure Azure isn’t stuck with a for-Windows-only tag by also hosting and offering full support for other operating systems. Let’s take a look at both Azure and Rackspace in detail.
Rackspace was founded in 1998 initially to host applications and websites for users and companies who did not want the hassle of on-premise hosting. Even today the company still maintains its webhosting service.
Rackspace offers IaaS and SaaS services. The SaaS offerings are mostly business applications – Sharepoint, Exchange, and Adobe Experience and readymade database environments - SQL Server, Oracle DB and MySQL. The IaaS offering is stuck with a rather generic-sounding moniker – Cloud Servers, but its big selling point is performance – all servers run on ultra-fast Solid-State Drives (SSD), and every host connects via a 40 Gbps link within the datacenter. Customers also have the option of choosing Rackspace’s Managed Cloud, in which “you get a dedicated team of engineers to run your cloud environment, and they'll even respond to monitoring alerts.” The company also offers automatic scaling depending on server load, automatic load balancing, storage and backup, including snapshot backups.
Rackspace prides and differentiates itself on ‘Fanatical Support’, the brand name for its above-and-beyond customer and technical service. This includes excellent client service and having hugely knowledgeable technical people respond to client concerns and queries. The general consensus in the market is that Rackspace tech support is simply on another level of excellence compared to other cloud providers and IT companies.
Another big Rackspace selling point is OpenStack. This open source IaaS platform is really a collection of projects that each focus on a single component, some of which are: a compute engine (Nova), an imaging service (Glance), a networking service (Neutron), and a central dashboard to monitor everything (Horizon). OpenStack ensures you are not locked into a vendor’s proprietary technology stack, as happens with Amazon, which makes it very difficult to migrate your apps out of that particular platform. OpenStack is beginning to gain momentum as other players start jumping on the bandwagon, including IBM, Cisco, HP, Oracle, Linux and VMWare.
It’s in the pricing–performance comparison where Rackspace suffers. In an independent multi-day test in May 2013 by an independent testing firm called CloudSpectator, a Rackspace server only beat an Amazon server on performance, scoring a Unixbench test score of 555.2, compared to Azure’s 1442 score. Even worse, Rackspace showed considerable variance in performance, and when adjusted for cost its relatively high prices meant it was dead last in a CloudSpectator test of 5 providers. See more here and for more details on Rackspace pricing, go here.
Right off the bat, Azure’s major selling point is its close connection to Windows and other Microsoft products such as SQL Server. In fact the latest versions of SQL Server have an inbuilt feature to enable you to store and backup your databases directly to an Azure host.
However, kudos to Microsoft for abandoning its long-held principle of only supporting Windows and Microsoft products. Azure of course boasts excellent integration and compatibility with MS products such as .NET, Active Directory and SQL Server. But the platform also offers an impressive array of non-Microsoft platforms – Linux VM’s, Hadoop databases, Git, Mercurial. All these are testament to Microsoft’s and new CEO Satya Nadella’s new way of doing things – collaboration instead of the exclusive and sometimes combative competition that has traditionally been a hallmark of the tech giant.
Azure offers the traditional compute, backup and storage IaaS options of all almost all cloud providers, in addition to being a SaaS and PaaS provider. But it also offers some unique features – media services, the BizTalk service to support hybrid on-premise+cloud hosting, mobile services, and Recovery Manager for “coordinating the replication and recovery of private clouds across sites”. The features are too numerous to list here in detail, so read more here.
Microsoft’s pricing strategy is simple – it benchmarks its prices to Amazon and matches Amazon’s regular price cuts. This has resulted in vicious, high-profile price wars between the two and also Google’s Compute Engine, all of which delight customers and which other cloud providers like Rackspace are then pressured to match.
Azure has also gained a reputation of having the best-performing servers in the business, a fact borne out by independent testers. Azure VM’s are on average about 2 to 3 faster than Rackspace’s VM’s. And the deal gets even sweeter when you take into account Azure’s lower prices and wider range of supported platforms.
Both Azure and Rackspace have something to offer. Rackspace offers great client service and through OpenStack promises that no lock-in of client applications and environments. Azure offers clients a cloud platform compatible with both Microsoft products and other platforms, all for a very competitive price. Before settling on a choice, do a careful evaluation of each platform’s strengths and weaknesses and relate these to your own needs. And be sure to check out how Azure and Rackspace compare with other cloud service providers in our cloud service provider roundup.