We’ve been comparing cloud service providers for years now, pitting Azure against DigitalOcean, DigitalOcean against Linode, and so on down the line to the point that we’re just plum sick of it. Just kidding! Who could ever tire of such a thing? Cloud computing invokes such a rush that it almost takes your mind off of poor, old, dead as an R/C helicopter Radio Shack. And as the cloud space is in constant flux, many of the previous comparisons could be a touch out of date. So we figured our options were either (a) mope around, morosely pondering the inevitability of death and everlasting irrelevance, or (b) hold a Battle Royale to determine the Best Cloud Computing Service for Now and At Least the Immediate Future! 

Cloud IaaS providers

The Challengers

  • DigitalOcean:  In this Battle Royale, DigitalOcean may very well be ready to “get over” with audiences worldwide (i.e., you might consider them the favorite). A whirlwind year of additions and funding has culminated in a perfectly rosy announcement that reads like Macho Man cutting a promo (this is the last professional wrestling analogy, we promise). A new data center in Germany? Acquiring Windows licensing? The “trivial” addition of FreeBSD to the OS lineup? Good God. DigitalOcean is stylin’ and profilin’.
  • Linode: Because Linode moves at the relatively quick, yet not flat-out lightspeed pace of most technology companies not named DigitalOcean, there isn’t much to report since discussing their trajectory last month. In addition to their long-standing market presence and deep cloud experience (they’ve been around since 2003), Linode’s merits also include a strong feature set and extensive customization options. But the question remains: is focusing on the top-end of the market a viable strategy, or have they already been undercut by the VPS behemoths able and willing to extend lower pricing to more casual users?
  • Azure: Though we’re looking solely at IaaS offerings to maintain an apples-to-apples comparison (to the extent possible), we’d be remiss to ignore the unique, additional features and benefits Azure enjoys under the Microsoft umbrella. And yes, prices have dropped again.
  • AWS EC2: As Azure’s arch-nemesis, EC2 is partially responsible for the constant innovation and recent insane price drops in the cloud computing space. Amazon is still the top dog in the business, with much of their success stemming from robust offerings in related categories. At the end of the day, though, it all comes back to pricing. Ruthless.
  • Rackspace: There’s a whole lotta shakin’ going on at Rackspace lately, and it hasn’t all been good. In short, the above titans of tech and Google have made the IaaS market extremely competitive—so much so, in fact, that Rackspace is taking its ball and going home. Well, maybe not entirely. Refocusing their business on managed services is a smart move; it enables them to transition from an IaaS also-ran to a niche category leader with relatively less competition. The problem is, what if Google decides to intrude there, too?
  • Google Compute Engine: Speaking of Google, one can hardly have a discussion about cloud services without mentioning the search giant’s impressive track record in 2014: a scant 14 minutes of downtime the entire year for its storage solutions. Granted, Google’s Compute Engine is a different beast, but its 4.46 hours of downtime last year is highly respectable nonetheless. These metrics clearly illustrate what Google is capable of.
  • Softlayer: We haven’t thrown Softlayer into a matchup yet, but that’s not to say they aren’t worth considering. IBM acquired them almost two years ago, so clearly they’re doing something right. Furthermore, they’re carving out a niche by catering to power users: Softlayer’s Bare Metal servers—built to spec if ordered on a monthly basis—are unique to the industry and appealing for a variety of reasons.

A comprehensive and granular tabulation of each cloud provider’s features, systems, and pricing schedules would be unmanageable, even with this relatively exclusive subset of vendors. In a similar vein, information contained therein would become outdated fairly quickly. The above table primarily serves to highlight what you’re not getting with some companies that you could with others.

Specialization is the name of the game when it comes to cloud computing offerings. The market is full of niches, and while almost every cloud provider competes on the same handful of features, those crafting unique products and solutions are the ones that will remain competitive. Not surprisingly, cloud providers vary in terms of what they’re able to accommodate. So if you need a Windows server, not every vendor may be equipped to meet your request, and those that can will in most cases command a small premium. If experimenting with a bare metal setup is your thing, you already know it’s going to cost you. And while many believe the cloud market is heading in that direction, SoftLayer and Rackspace are your best options at this juncture. For no frills, upfront pricing and quick deployment/speed to match, DigitalOcean and Linode remain best bets.

AWS EC2, Google Compute Engine, and Microsoft Azure are as formidable as ever due to their ongoing triangular price war. A word of caution: if a lot of data egress is anticipated, you might want to look at providers that include a generous provision rather than those that charge by the GB. This applies especially in cases where data flow is non-interzonal. Sadly, all three cloud giants fall short of presenting pertinent subscription information coherently, employing price structure obfuscation that borders on absurdity (though Microsoft is a bit better than Amazon and Google in this regard). And though their cloud offerings may differ in several respects, the Amazon info page looks positively byzantine when compared to the no-nonsense approach of new star DigitalOcean.

Given all these factors and considerations, there is no "one size fits all" IaaS provider. In general, we think most users should start with DigitalOcean and work their way up the chain. They’re the easiest to spin up, cheapest to configure, and might spare you a hack through the Amazonian jungle. For more advanced use cases (e.g., in an enterprise setting), Amazon AWS, Google Compute Engine, and Microsoft Azure are the best options, as they provide the SLA and broad range of related services required by corporate IT, among others.

Be sure to check back often, as we'll be revisiting these IaaS providers in future articles to see how they measure up in terms of security/regulatory compliance, customer support, and other areas.

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