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Rackspace Cloud review

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The OpenStack advantage

Rackspace was one of the main forces behind OpenStack, and the company continues to make the flexibility of the open source cloud stack one of its big selling points. Your enterprise won't be locked into the Rackspace cloud because you can always set up OpenStack in your own data centre - if and when you want to leave Rackspace behind. This flexibility is crucial for many businesses because rewriting code can be quite a pain, especially if it's older code that someone wrote long ago before quitting.

Rackspace brags that it's not just offering you a separate fork of OpenStack, but the actual code running on its cloud machines. "The software is not a separate distribution of OpenStack, so you don't have to worry about a branching dead end," promises the Rackspace website. This is quite an offer and one that's designed to prey on any enterprise manager's worst fears of vendor lock-in.

Rackspace also pushes hybrid architectures that make it possible for you to link up your private cloud with the Rackspace cloud for moments when you need more servers. One customer, for instance, says it turns on servers in the public cloud whenever it runs major ad campaigns. When the traffic surge is over, the website retreats to the private cloud. Running the same OpenStack layer in your data centre makes it simpler to do this.

Rackspace is taking a different approach to storing data. While Amazon, Google, HP, and a few others are building elaborate NoSQL abstraction layers that promise elastic scalability, Rackspace is sticking with MySQL, the decades-old, tried-and-true solution to storing information.

Rackspace Cloud

You can choose between disk storage and faster SSD when you create a block of storage that can be mounted on your virtual machine.

This is a great solution for developers with any legacy code. It's easy to fire up a new project and begin with a fun, new NoSQL storage engine when you're starting with a blank sheet of paper, but it's much harder to take running code and convert it. I was able, for instance, to get Drupal up and running in less than five minutes because Drupal relies upon MySQL to store all of the data. I didn't need to rewrite the Drupal code to work with some new object or document store. There was no weird glue code or translation architecture. I just started up a MySQL database and pointed the Drupal code at the URL.

The separate MySQL option came around because the engineers at Rackspace listened to customer complaints that the performance of databases often wasn't as good as it could be. The virtualisation layer used in clouds like these added delays in writing and reading from the I/O, a factor for operations like running a database. The device driver for your virtual machine won't write directly to the disk, but will shove the data into shared memory and wait for the underlying machine OS to actually write it to storage. That may be an acceptable price to pay for some applications, but not for code that lives to store data to a hard disk.

Rackspace's solution is to eliminate some of the hardware and operating system layers, which the company calls "container-based virtualisation." You can't log in to your MySQL database server and configure the underlying OS. You get only a URL and a MySQL user password; all of your interaction happens as a MySQL user, not as a regular Unix user.

Protecting your cloud data

Rackspace has added extra redundancy out of sight. The version of MySQL isn't running on any old machine, but writing to a SAN with RAID hardware. Rackspace then enables further protection by copying the data to other machines on the network. All of this replication happens at the hardware or network level, not with MySQL. Rackspace doesn't currently use the MySQL replication code, although it promises to offer that in the future. The company also promises to offer yet another layer of protection, an automated backup tool for taking snapshots of your database. 

The cloud is a bit of a departure for Rackspace, at least given the price. The company built its name on offering great hand-holding support at premium prices. While the cloud instances are priced like commodities, you can still spend money if you need to. If you want to purchase a Cloud Site, one of the products sitting next to the regular cloud servers, it will cost $150 a month. That's dramatically more than the $5 per month that some low-cost providers charge for website hosting, but it includes Rackspace's trademarked "fanatical support." A Cloud Site also comes with fixed limits on bandwidth and storage, which the low-cost servers pretend don't exist when they claim it's all unlimited. Of course the low-cost sites are fibbing - nothing is unlimited.

There are a number of other ways to buy premium products or premium support. All the cloud machines are available with Rackspace support under a separate tab called Managed Cloud. Almost every product Rackspace offers at a commodity price is also available with hand-holding for more money. If your operation doesn't have the expertise inside or you just want to arrange for an additional layer of people who can assist, you can sign up for support. Even if you're building your own private cloud using Rackspace's open source set of tools, Rackspace will offer to help you from afar.

This is the corner of the IT world that Rackspace has chosen: high-quality support married with commodity hardware and open systems. The company's sales literature pushes the idea that you should "Stay because you want to, not because you have to." The next generation of the Rackspace cloud offers more features and more options, but it stays true to this basic plan. It's more like running your own servers, the kindly Linux boxes you've grown accustomed to, and less like buying into a newfangled religion.


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